Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
From 1897 to 1917, Storyville was the city's official red light district, where prostitution was, if not completely legal, tolerated. It was crammed full of brothels, most of which employed a piano player to turn out tunes for the visiting gentlemen. Some of those who tickled the ivories went on to become legends in the inception of jazz, including Jelly Roll Morton, Pops Foster, Joe "King" Oliver, and Buddy Bolden, called by some the "father of jazz," who is a minor character in Hot Funky Butt Jazz, and is a major inspiration to several other characters. The music scene in Storyville brothels led to the establishment of dance clubs. One of best known was the Funky Butt, running on Saturday nights in the Union Sons Hallwhich on Sunday morning was transformed into First Lincoln Baptist Church.
As Storyville flourished, black communities were living under the heel of Jim Crow, state laws throughout the south that African Americans would, in every aspect of their lives, be second class citizens. The NAACP was being formed to channel the anger and oppression felt by African-American communities into social change In 1900, the Robert Charles Riots, so named after an African-American man who was shot by a police officer for sitting on the steps of a white woman's boarding house, was a spur for organizing an NAACP chapter in New Orleans. Also, at the turn of the century, blackface minstrelsy, with its demeaning depiction of African-American men, gave up its long run (from the 1830s) as the most popular form of entertainment across America, replaced by a new show biz phenomenon, vaudeville.
Hot Funky Butt Jazz rolls all of this out for us to enjoy, and encourages us to ponder the convergence of complex forces that trigger each emergent phase of our nation's social history. Our guide through this panorama is Marie Laveau, a famed practitioner of voodoo in 19th century New Orleans, whose spirit presides over all. She is abetted by Stringbean Russel, a fictional trombone player awaiting the return of Buddy Bolden while on the prowl for fellow jazzmen to break through into the music scene. Through their eyes we meet madams and the prostitutes they employ, musicians, deacons, pious churchgoers (both black and white), street peddlers, vaudevillians, and others. We have not so much a story as a guided tour through the many-faceted aspects of Storyville.
This is a good time to insert that Hot Funky Butt Jazz is the creation of Interact Theater, based at the Interact Center, which gives differently abled people opportunities to participate in both visual and performing arts. Interact's resident composer and music director Aaron Gabriel composed the sprightly score, with songs that lean heavy on ragtime and stride-piano jazz, but also includes blues, marches, hymns and vaudeville turns. Out of a cast of fifty-three, only a handful are professional guest actors or musicians. Many members of this large troupe have modest roles, such as hawkers of fruit at an open-air market, pious community members shocked by the presence of prostitutes, prostitutes amused by the piety of the straight-laced set, nuns or boatmen. They create vibrant images of the scope of teeming life in this small corner of the world during a short window of history. All of them play their part, however large or small, with utter conviction. Fluid movements and transitions are charted by director Jeanne Calvit, who seems to have been continually aware of every member of her large company.
Many of the actors give knock-out performances in featured roles. Cayla Pierson is soul stirring as Deacon Cora Russel, a local NAACP organizer who delivers a mesmerizing invocation calling her flock to organize, but is too blinded by piety to accept help from the daughter of one of the madams. As that daughter, named Kidney-Foot Jenny, Stephanie Muue is a determined fireball, radiating a depth of intelligence far beyond her station in life: she is stunning singing the melancholy "Remember Storyville".
Michael Wolfe conveys innocence corrupted as Professor James London, an African-American music conductor for a travelling vaudeville dance team who learns about life in Storyville. Candy Dapple and Coco Vaughn are a pair of drag queens played with panache by Sam Videen and Jeffrey Haas, leading a crowd of fellow performers in a rollicking tribute to "Small Time Vaudeville." Laura Mullin, as One-Eyed Sal, shows off in a swell specialty dance turn. Cast members deliver a smartly composed and directed face-off between congregants of a spirited black church and a stiff-boned white church. To underscore the harshness of African-American life in Storyville, a corps of the company join together for the darkly incisive "Mista Jim Crow."
As the guest performers, Zena Moses is glorious as Marie Laveau, singing beautifully, delivering droll witticisms with aplomb, and warmly dispensing wisdom visible to a spirit who has lived through the ravages of a life. Ivory Doublette and Sheridan Zuther are a pair of déclassé madams competing for customers on the streets of Storyville. Jeremy Phipps is a bit stiff as String Bean Russel, never conveying the fluidity of a man whose soul is infected by jazz, but he plays a mean trombone. His fellow musicians all perform with gustodrummer Eugene Harding, saxophonist Matthew Trice, and pianist Kymani Kahlil.
Special mention must go to guest artist Messiah Moses Albert, who plays Little Louie, a young boy who finds a way of always being where trouble is brewing. That this engaging youngster is meant to be the young Louis Armstrong is confirmed early on when he is called by the nickname "Satchel Mouth" which was Armstrong's childhood nickname that evolved into Satchmo. Albert embodies the joy of performance, singing, dancing, and sheer magnetism.
Hot Funky Butt Jazz has an effective set, designed by Mina Kinukawa, that captures Storyville's sense of elegance on the brink of decay. Rhiannon Fiskradatz's costume designs convey both the fashions and the mores of the time and place with a sense of affection and humor. Marcus Dilliard's lighting provides the sweep of moods that embody Storyville.
Hot Funky Butt Jazz is a delight, with bright music, a host of winning performances, a company that is committed to having the audience enjoy themselves, and a look into a moment of sharp transitions in our American culture, when radical new music emerged to accompany, or perhaps to egg on, a continuing quest to define an American life that is inclusive and just.
Hot Funky Butt Jazz, through November 18, 2018, by Interact Theater at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. All tickets are $9.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224, or go to www.guthrietheater.org. For information about Interact Theater, visit www.interactcenter.org.
Music, Lyrics and Music Director: Aaron Gabriel; Director: Jeanne Calvit; Assistant Director: James Lekatz; Creative Liaisons: Heather Bunch and Scotty Reynolds; Scenic Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Rhiannon Fiskradatz; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Technical Director: Zeb Hults; Assistant Technical Director: Justin Parks. Production Stage Manager: Vanessa I. Healey; Assistant Stage Manager: Shannon Twohy; Second Assistant Stage Manager: Karen Prince.
Cast: Messiah Moses Albert (Little Louie), Thomas Altimus (Lazy), Katlyn Aubitz (novice), Joe Blegen (street urchin), Doree Bogrow (Mrs. Leymoyne), Mike Brindley (boatman), Henry Brown (street urchin), Heather Bunch (Eileen Manor), Sean Carroll (Mr. Weber), Matt Dahlstrom (Moron), Ian Dischinger (Hank Pearl), Ivory Doublette (Mme "Mama" May Moreaux), Chelsey Ellering (Mrs. Karnofsky), Michael Engebretson (Nick White), Courtney Evans (Mrs. Weber), Becca Flint (mother superior), Jeffrey Haas (Coco Vaughn), Beth Halvorson (Bon Ton Betty), Eugene Harding (Zutty MacNeil), Anna Maria Ihekoronye (Deacon Mary), Lhea Jaeger (Mrs. Smythe), Yeon Ju (fabric seller), Kymani Kahlil (Dabby Coles), Ana Maria Koutsostamatis (Bertha Camors), James Lekatz (constable), Isaiah Marsolais (Buddy Bolden), Daniel Mauck (Jack Ash), Ben McCarthy (Mr. Lemoyne), Naa Mensah (Essie), Jacob Merrill (Tony Flake), Taylor Michurski (E.J. Belloqc/ Happy), Jesse Miner (Irish foreman/Dim Wit), Jule Moench (Mannie Bickerdyke), Zena Moses (Marie Laveau), Laura Mullin (One-Eyed Sal), Stephanie Muue (Kidney-Foot Jenny), Laura Nelson (novice), Tom Ordyniec (Boatman), Jeremy Phipps (Stringbean Russel), Cayla Pierson (Deacon Cora Russel), Scott Raberge (preacher), Scotty Reynolds (Victor Manor), Suzy Sauter (Mrs. Walz), Cornelius Shoats (Buffoon), Karen Thorud (Gipsy Grey), Matthew Trice (Stalebread LaCoumbe), Sam Videen (Candy Apple), Jake Walinski (boatman), Malcom Walker (preacher), Porsha Williams (Mary, a Funky Butt dancer), Michael Wolfe (Professor James London), Wesley Wright (parishioner), Dominic Zeman (Mrs. Zeman), Sheridan Zuther (Mme. Fanny Bloom).