Cabaret Celebrates U Street’s Heyday

Posted April 22, 2009 at 3:23pm

Instead of sinking into self-pity during tough times, why not sing your way through it?

This is the advice the In Series organization wants to share in its cabaret production of “From U Street to the Cotton Club— at the Source theater on 14th Street Northwest.

“The vehicle of a cabaret gives us the opportunity to wallow less in the struggle and celebrate more the response to the struggle,— director KenYatta Rogers said. “Music serves as our salvation.—

“U Street— features enduring songs by famous jazz musicians such as Fats Weller, Irving Mills, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, who all thrived through their music during periods of racial segregation and economic depression.

Rogers said the works of these musicians, whom he described as the “spirited folk,— were taken from the experiences of hope and despair of Africans-Americans.

“Our play encourages those wandering in the darkest moments of their lives to look backward for inspiration,— Rogers said.

Carla Hübner, In Series artistic producing director and founder, said, “What we’re interested in doing is to reflect the true experience— of the 1920s. “We also wanted to preserve the legacy of the music of that era,— she added.

With songs like “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,— “Drop Me Off in Harlem,— “Minnie the Moocher— and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,— playwright Sybil Williams created the story of how Little Lena coped with the death of her 105-year-old grandmother, Lena.

Walking in an attic of her grandmother’s D.C. apartment, Little Lena discovers a chest containing items that represent how the older Lena, known as Sassy during her teenage years, lived through segregation in the 1920s and ultimately found happiness.

Sassy first wanders around U Street, also known as Black Broadway and D.C.’s jazz hub. Then her curiosity takes her to Harlem in New York, particularly the Cotton Club, which hired only black performers but allowed only white customers.

“Anytime Grandma Lena turns towards love, she’s going in the right direction. And anytime she’s seeking fame and fortune, she’s actually in the wilderness,— Rogers said.

Giving life to Little Lena and Sassy on stage is Rogers’ wife, Michelle Rogers. Playing two characters is no easy feat, Michelle said. “I have to make sure the audience does not get confused— between Little Lena and Sassy by having a distinct vocal quality, personality and movement for each character.

A lawyer by profession, Michelle returns to the stage after a two-year hiatus. She was last seen as Ruth in the African Continuum Theatre’s production of “Raisin in the Sun— in January 2007.

To prepare for her parts, Michelle said she did considerable Internet research and viewed YouTube interviews and performances of famous black entertainers — jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald and actors Pearl Bailey and Josephine Baker.

One of her inspirations in playing Grandma Lena’s character was a woman Michelle met 16 years ago during a film shoot in D.C. “She had the best voice and told me that she was a jazz singer in the 1940s and knew some of the greats like Billie Holiday,— Michelle recalled.

Of course it helped to have a director husband, Michelle admitted. “KenYatta was tougher on me because he knows my skills.— KenYatta and Michelle met in college when they performed in “Rachel,— a 1916 play by one of this country’s first black dramatists, Angelina Grimké.

Since “U Street— was conceptualized as a cabaret, one of the challenges in mounting the show was the selection of songs to create a narrative arc. Responsible for that was musical director and pianist Stanley Thurston.

Giving voice to the music are Detra Battle, Brian Thorne, Pam Ward, Michelle Rogers and Stanley Webber.

“They blow me away every day. The voices in the show are ridiculously beautiful,— Rogers said.

Creating “U Street— was not only meant as a showcase for jazz, but also to celebrate the gentrification of the U Street corridor, a nine-block stretch of restaurants, theaters, galleries, shops and residences in Northwest.

“From U Street to the Cotton Club— will run April 24, 25, 26, 30 and May 1 and 3. For tickets and information, call 202-204-7763.