Review: ‘From U Street to the Cotton Club’ by The In Series

Rising from its roots in the Deep South, African American music journeyed north with the Great Migration, invigorating urban culture with rhythms derived from shouts to spirituals, work songs and hollers. In the early 20th century, a mélange of Black music began to thrive in Washington, DC – home to the largest number of African Americans in any U.S. city by 1915.

The Company of The In Series' production of From U Street to The Cotton Club. Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.
The Company of The In Series’ production of From U Street to the Cotton Club. Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.

The In Series celebrates the emergence of DC’s U Street corridor as the “Black Broadway” in a revival of their 2009 production, U Street to the Cotton Club. It’s just in time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of 1968’s shattering events, which shuttered most of the area. The U Street Corridor has only recently re-emerged as a vibrant, multicultural hub of restaurants and theaters.

Written by Sybil R. Williams, and nimbly directed by KenYatta Rogers, this sprightly revue features songs by the 20th century’s greatest Black composers and musicians. It is being staged, appropriately, at Source Theater, in the same neighborhood where Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Pearl Bailey, among other luminaries, performed regularly.

The story is knitted together through memories penned by Lena, a songstress whose long musical life in the South, DC, New York and Paris is recalled from a tattered journal that her daughter and grandchildren find in the attic just after she dies. Beginning in the honky-tonks of the South, Lena moves north to DC, continues to dazzling Harlem, and even to Paris, where in the post-World War I era, Black performers found an unprecedented respite from the Jim Crow strictures that hemmed in their lives.

A talented company invites us into the action. Grandma Lena and Little Lena (Michelle Rogers) provide the emotional glue that holds the narrative together. She is aided by Detra Battle Washington (Soprano), Brian Quenton Thorne (Tenor), Greg Watkins (Baritone) and Pam Ward (Mezzo).

The first act features the spirited, rhythmic ring shout “Run Old Jeremiah” (Watkins and Ensemble) and “Walk Together Children,” (Ensemble) both traditional numbers. Watkins’ dexterous handling of “Walkin’ Blues” by Eddie James “Son” House, Jr., is complemented by Washington’s wonderful rendition of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” by Shelton Brooks. Ward’s earthy “Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle of Beer)” by Wesley Wilson and Coot Grant was made famous by the legendary Bessie Smith.

Momentum builds in the second act as African American artists and songwriters scale to the heights of fame in DC and Harlem. Watkins’ “This Joint is Jumpin’” (by Fats Waller, Andy Razaf and J.C. Johnson) and Ward’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (by Waller, Razaf and Harry Brooks) are exceptional. Thorne’s superb phrasing and rich tenor voice animate Cab Calloway’s hilarious “Minnie the Moocher” and give vivid expression to the depths of the Depression in “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” by Jay Gorney and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. The ensemble performance of Duke Ellington and Irving Mills’ “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” reminds us of the essential rhythms of African American music that root it in tradition and express its genius.

Michelle Rogers (Lena) in The In Series' production of From U Street to The Cotton Club. Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.
Michelle Rogers (Lena) in The In Series’ production of From U Street to the Cotton Club. Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.

Music Director and Pianist Stanley Thurston sits at an upright throughout the performance, moving us seamlessly from era to era with his striking arrangements. He’s accompanied by bassist Percy White and percussionist Richard Slye. Offstage, Kasai Rogers provides additional drumming. He appears onstage with Mecca Rogers as one of old Lena’s grandchildren – both of them heirs to a rich musical tradition. Angelisa Gillyard’s choreography expertly combines dance styles of the era, providing constant visual pleasure throughout.

The In Series is taking full advantage of this production’s location. Before every performance, they are offering a walking tour of the U Street Corridor with local historian Timothy Wright, showing audiences where the action took place as he discusses the evolution of the music that emerged there. The tours end with dinner at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a U Street landmark.

If your knowledge of DC history starts and stops with the monuments, here is a splendid opportunity to add immense richness to your understanding of the Capital’s fascinating story. In song, dance, and on foot, rediscover the genius of Washington’s Black Broadway and the profound influence it had on America’s music.

Running time: One hour and 40 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

From U Street to the Cotton Club, presented by The In Series, plays through January 20, 2019, at Source Theatre, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202 204-7763, or purchase them online.