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Rollin' on the T.O.B.A.
A Tribute to the Last Days of Black Vaudeville
Some day someone will write about me . . . It will be me
Those words by an unseen voice raise the red velvet curtain on this peppy little song and dance show. The "me" of that declaration is a double me -- Ronald "Smokey" Stevens and Jaye Stewart -- who have created this homage to the talents of the entertainers who early in this century sang, danced and joked their way along the black vaudeville circuit.
These gifted itinerants with names like Butterbean and Susie, Stump and Stumpy, Pigmeat, The Whitman Sisters and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson were constantly on the road, poorly housed and paid. Yet, despite broken promises about great new opportunities by T.O.B.A (Theatre Owners' Booking Agency, renamed by the performers as Tough On Black Asses), these performers soldiered on. While I would have preferred to hear Rollin' on the T.O.B.A.'s female star Sandra Reaves-Phillips at the top of her naturally deep-throated and powerful voice, her game performance in the face of the bug that's assaulted New Yorkers on both sides of the stage, spoke poignantly to the perseverance of the singer-dancer-comedians being honored in this big-hearted small musical. With her bouncy strut and glittering sequin gowns and feather boas Ms. Reaves-Phillips almost made you forget that Bertha Mae Little, her fictional big beautiful mama character, had to deliver her songs at a low simmer rather than a full boil.
Essentially a revue the show has just enough of a book to connect Bertha with two comics (also fictional inventions) named Stevens (co-author and director Ronald "Smokey" Stevens) and Stewart (Rudy Roberson) and to fill in bits and pieces of the larger picture of black vaudeville circa 1931. The men are, like Bertha, authentically and stylishly costumed by Michele Reisch. Stevens' brings more elegant and enjoyable dancing to this miniscule stage than you're likely to find in many bigger recent musicals (choreographed by his wife and co-director Leslie Dockery). His "Bill Robinson Walk" and "Hop Scop Blues" solos are deserved applause getters. Roberson's Stewart has his best moment as a soloist with"Huggin' and Chalkin'. My favorite comedy routine done by both men was "The Chess Game"-- a bravura example of synchronization with each set of chess moves followed by a mimed battle with gun, sword and fists to the accompaniment of Charles Gunod's "Funeral March of the Marionettes." The influence of vaudevillians like these on later comedians of stage, screen and television are particularly evident in some of the Stevens and Stewart word play interchanges (one number in particular reminded me of the much re-played Abbot and Costello "who's on first" baseball routine.
The musical accompaniment is a mix of recorded music and piano playing by musical director David Alan Bunn, whose heel sometimes take over from his nimble fingers. Besides the use of music by some of the era's greats like W. C. Handy and Duke Ellingon, the show's conceptualizers have also cleverly integrated bits and pieces from Langston Hughes "Simple Stories." Hughes inspired vernacular creation used a narrator to play straight man to a wise fool of Harlem named Jesse B. Semple ( best known as "Simple"). The stories ran for some twenty years in a weekly, The Defender, and were eventually collected into five volumes. The smattering of excerpts enrich this show with considerable historic resonance
Like all revues, Rollin' has its lesser and slow-moving segments. It also suffers from the reality that there's just so much to be done to create the aura of a real musical with just three character and a piano. Set designer Larry W. Brown has smartly kept the staging simple with a few roll-out props -- including a seat to suggest the train that takes Bertha and Stevens and Stewart to their many destinations. With Black History Month beginning tomorrow, the arrival of this show which has had several runs in other cities, couldn't be more timely.
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