Theater Review - Blues now and then

Jar the Floor, Joe Louis Blues tackle racial and musical dissonance

Andrea Frye is cooking. She's working as the artistic director of New Jomandi Productions, where the "New" signifies that Atlanta's African-American theater company, beleaguered by turnover and financial difficulties, has renewed confidence. While Jomandi presents the East Coast debut of Joe Louis Blues, directed by Buddy Butler, Frye is directing Jar the Floor at the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage.

Her stint as Jomandi's artistic director may be temporary, but with co-founders Tom Jones and Marsha Jackson-Randolph having moved on to other things, and Kenny Leon having stepped down as the Alliance's artistic director, Frye currently has the role as one of most prominent African-American theater artists. As plays, Joe Louis Blues and Jar the Floor have little in common, but taking them together they offer a welcome sign of vitality (with Floor's run having already been extended a week).

Floor is set firmly in the present, while Joe Louis takes place in 1942. Both have vivid characterizations and touch on themes involving the authenticity of "blackness" and the difficulties of singing careers. Yet both also come across as a bit thin, with virtues that don't extend completely across the board.

Frye is directing Jar the Floor for a second time, having helmed a Jomandi production of Cheryl West's play about 10 years ago. The play introduces four generations of African-American women, brought together for the 90th birthday party of doddering MaDear (Pat Bowie). Her daughter Lola (Margo Moorer), a free spirit with many wigs and many men, neither looks nor acts her age, and could be sister to her own offspring, Maydee (Terry Burrell). An intellectual university professor waiting to learn if she's gotten tenure, Maydee has her own problems with her artistic-minded daughter Vennie (Saycon Sengbloh).

The older women wonder about Vennie's sexual orientation, especially when she brings home her female friend, Raisa (Laurie Strickland), whose whiteness is the least of her unexpected traits. The reactions to Raisa give the first act the aspect of a race-reversed Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? The humor can become as broad and forced as any sitcom, as when MaDear and Lola, ordered not to say anything embarrassing to Raisa, make the "gag order" literal by putting sweater sleeves in their mouths.

The second act gets more serious, focusing on mothers who fail their daughters, and vice versa. But while one looks for valuable themes in theatrical conflict, Floor's discourse too often feel like self-centered complaint, and its scandalous, 11th-hour revelation feels derivative of too many other plays.

But Frye's production has many rich and entertaining touches, particularly the strength of its cast. Moorer lives up to the role of Lola, a part clearly designed to please audiences. When Lola makes outrageous remarks, Frye often has the other actresses smile quietly to themselves, as if they're sometimes amused by her big, bumptious personality. Dex Edward's otherwise realistic set leans at sharp angles on the edges — at the corner, the kitchen tilts at an unnatural angle — intriguingly symbolizing the fissures in the household.

Joe Louis Blues also has some musical moments, as it deals with the delicate and at times brutal aspects of race in singing and professional boxing in 1942. Kerry Salary plays the soft-spoken boxer whom the white establishment (represented by David Kronwitter's ringside announcer) calls "a credit to his race" while rooting for his defeat. We see glimpses of the prizefighter's career between longer scenes in Harlem hotels and nightclubs.

Joe gives a boost to his new mistress Leila (Gayle Samuels), a nightclub bandleader who wants to be a singer yet hates to sing the blues. The script's discussions of The Meaning Of The Blues too often sounds like music criticism, and the Leila character contradicts herself too much to keep the audience's sympathies. Samuels is a likable actress and a fine singer, but can't reconcile the role's confusing motivations.

The Joe Louis and Leila storylines have increasingly tenuous connections to two musicians (played by David Downing and Geoffrey D. Williams) and a West Indian nightclub owner (Gary Yates), who offer earthy perspectives on Harlem life and the dilemmas of African-Americans during the early part of World War II. The actors prove quite credible, but the dry and static club scenes feel like a separate play entirely. Joe Louis Blues goes in numerous directions, but the playwright's many ideas ultimately fail to coalesce, and the entire evening drags.

Both Joe Louis Blues and Jar the Floor end with musical moments that live up to each play's title. But neither play is a musical, with each wanting to make stronger statements than you can find in revues like Ain't Misbehavin' or Blues in the Night. They have a lot to say, not to sing.


Jar the Floor plays through March 10 at the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., at 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sun. $21-$27. 404-733-5000. www.alliancetheatre.org.

Joe Louis Blues plays through March 3 at the 14th Street Playhouse, 173 14th St., at 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and 3 p.m. Sun. $18-$25. 404-876-6346. www.jomandi.com.??

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