Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre has specialized in musical revues recalling great performers like Mahalia Jackson. KERA’s Jerome Weeks says Jubilee’s newest revue, One Mo’ Time, recalls not one artist but a whole style of theater.
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This is Bessie Smith singing Cake Walkin’ Babies.
Smith was hailed as the Empress of the Blues. But like Ma Rainey and other early blues artists, Smith actually included Tin Pan Alley tunes , rags, Charlestons and cakewalks in her shows. Above all, Smith was an entertainer, and she entertained in the black vaudeville theaters known as the chitlin’ circuit.
One Mo’ Time is a vaudeville revue conceived by historian-performer and New Orleans native Vernel Bagneris, which originally ran for four years off-Broadway at the Village Gate and was successfully revived on Broadway in 2002. The show recreates an evening in New Orleans’ Lyric Theatre in 1926, complete with dance acts and even an old-style black-faced minstrel comic, clearly modeled on the legendary Bert Williams, whom W. C. Fields called “the funniest man I ever saw — and the saddest man I ever knew.”
The song-and-dance numbers in One Mo’ Time are loosely threaded together because the show gives us both onstage fun and backstage turmoil. The touring company must contend with one performer who’s in jail, another who’s stolen their cash and everyone who’s at odds with the hard-living Bertha Williams, the company’s star.
But in addition to being a celebration of black vaudeville, One Mo’ Time is something of a hilarious memorial to two prolific, classic songwriter-lyricists: Clarence Williams and Andy Razaf. Williams has six songs showcased here (including Cake Walkin’ Babies), while Razaf has only three. Even so, the brilliant, troubled Razaf is the better-known these days because of his work with Fats Waller, in particular the songs, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Black and Blue (which means Razaf’s songs have been featured in three African-American revues on Broadway and he gave the titles to two of them).
It’s as if Razaf and Williams competed to write song lyrics with the most overt sexual overtones while lacking anything explicit. Williams’ The Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole may lose to Razaf’s Kitchen Man but only because Razaf seems to have set out to compile every raunchy food reference in the blues vocabulary.
Directed by Tyrone King, the Fort Worth production features several welcome Jubilee stalwarts. Robert L. Rouse Jr. deftly plays the likable, philandering, put-upon company manager, Papa Du, while the powerhouse singer Sheran Keyton Goodspeed is Bertha, who’s based on Bessie Smith.
Goodspeed has played Bessie Smith herself before this, so she knows how to make every double-entendre double-barreled and how to blast away like a true blues diva. As the theater owner, Aubrey Stephenson plays a man who bitterly upbraids the audience and wants to nullify the contract with Bertha so he doesn’t have to pay anyone. Stephenson is far too nice. (My one complaint with George Miller’s handsome set is that he’s made the theater too nice, too. These artists glowed all the more in their grimy settings.)
The other Jubilee mainstay who keeps One Mo’ Time clicking is music director Joe Rogers. On the night I attended, the show opened with Rogers sitting at the piano, turning to his drummer and bassist and simply saying, “Well . . . let’s have some fun.”
They did. We did. Jubilee’s One Mo’ Time is a lively, lewd, loving homage to a rough-and-tumble form of musical theater that had to make do in a shabby, racist world – and occasionally, it made great art.