In the Moment: One Song Lifts ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ from Jukebox Musical Status

“Black and Blue” is a devastating number to witness. 'Ain't Misbehavin' plays at Signature Theatre through March 10, 2019

By all means, go, have a great time at Signature Theatre’s grandly jaunty Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show, a musical revue centered upon the prolific composer Fats Waller (1904-1943) and his (and others) musical majesty during the high years of the Harlem Renaissance. The production sparkles with splendid voices, clean-cut burlesque-like attitude, stride piano sounds and choreography to match.

L-R: Solomon Parker III, Iyona Blake, Nova Y. Payton, Korinn Walfall, and Kevin McAllister in Ain't Misbehavin' at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
L-R: Solomon Parker III, Iyona Blake, Nova Y. Payton, Korinn Walfall, and Kevin McAllister in Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

But, wait. There is more to the production under Joe Calarco’s direction than just the sparkles. Way more.

With a gaggle of about 30 musical numbers, there is one particular standout song that clearly separates Signature’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ from being just a night out-on-the-town.

One song, with a genuinely potent presentation by a harmonious five-member ensemble, adds enormous authority and culturally prescience to Ain’t Misbehavin’. That song is “Black and Blue.” Written in 1929, “Black and Blue” was composed by Fats Waller at the age of 25, with lyrics by Andy Razal (born in Washington, DC in 1895).

“Black and Blue” is a devastating number to witness. It is a gospel homily about people of color searching for answers from an unseen and unheard God. The song is not unlike Job asking God “why me?” In the case of “Black and Blue” the “why was I born” question adds “my only sin is my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue?”

With extraordinary solo voices combined into lush, rich harmony ranging from soprano, alto, tenor and bass-baritone from Iyona Blake, Kevin McAllister, Solomon Parker III, Nova Y. Payton and Korinn Walfall with onstage pianist Mark G. Meadows, the rendition of “Black and Blue” is not theater. It is church. It is gospel that is deep, soulful and real.

Nova Y. Payton in Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Nova Y. Payton in Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Let me go on.

The song “Black and Blue” adds aural sinew to the Signature Theatre program notes about the Harlem Renaissance backstory of segregation and music appropriation. The program notes don’t shy away from this, noting that the hot clubs in Harlem such as the Cotton Club had black entertainers but allowed only white audiences.

As Langston Hughes suggested in his autobiography, The Big Sea, life was far from sparkly beneath the nighttime surface of the Harlem Renaissance, and behind the happy theatrical masks worn by many players.

Without the inclusion of “Black and Blue,” Ain’t Misbehavin’ (originally conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz four decades ago) is just another happy jukebox musical. It might have even sputtered out over time. “Black and Blue” provides the where-with-all for the musical revue to be a long-lived cultural touchstone.

So, I take the liberty of placing the shattering “Black and Blue” lyrics below:

Out in the street, shufflin’ feet
Couples passin’ two by two
While here am I, left high and dry
Black, and ’cause I’m black I’m blue

Browns and yellers, all have fellers
Gentlemen prefer them light
Wish I could fade, can’t make the grade
Nothing but dark days in sight

Cold, empty bed, springs hard as lead
Pains in my head, feel like old Ned
What did I do to be so black and blue?


No joys for me, no company
Even the mouse ran from my house
All my life through I’ve been so black and blue

I’m white inside, it don’t help my case
‘Cause I can’t hide, what is on my face, oh!

I’m so forlorn, life’s just a thorn
My heart is torn, why was I born?
What did I do to be so black and blue?

‘Cause you’re black, folks think you lack
They laugh at you, and scorn you too
What did I do to be so black and blue?

When you are near, they laugh and sneer
Set you aside and you’re denied
What did I do to be so black and blue?

How sad I am, each day I feel worse
My mark of Ham seems to be a curse, oh

How will it end? ain’t got a friend
My only sin is my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?

I hope you will take the opportunity to see and hear Signature’s super Ain’t Misbehavin and then listen closely to “Black and Blue” when it appears.  

Running time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ plays through March 10, 2019, at Signature Theater – 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771 or go online

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.