My early college years found me jumping back and forth between attraction and repulsion on the question of white people co-opting black culture-or, at least, black music. On the one hand, reading liver-spotted libidinist Norman Mailer's inadvertently hilarious early essay "The White Negro" led me to adopt this ode to jazz music and beat poetry as a sort of anti-manifesto--this was surely an instructions manual on how smart Anglos who enjoyed blues and jazz and gospel could make braying asses of themselves. On the other hand, the music of Bessie Smith and Howlin' Wolf and Big Mama Thornton and Little Milton and Marion Williams was invariably blasting out of my CD player, and when I closed my eyes and imagined how I would look and sing if it were me on that stage-well, the phrase "white Negro" sounds so harsh, doesn't it?
A love of the hypnotic power of the black American voice so sincere that it births a desire to emit it bumps up against a self-awareness that few comic tropes in post-Civil Rights America are more familiar than the white guy who thinks he has "soul." This conflict rose to the foreground of my mind while watching Jubilee Theatre's marvelous W. C. Handy revue The Sho-Nuf Blues. Producer and director Rudy Eastman and musical director Joe Rogers have wrought a playful and cozy evening of seminal American music inside their intimate venue in downtown Fort Worth. Indeed, the Jubilee Theatre space is so intimate that during sold-out performances-as this one was, and as the closing weekend is likely to be-there is not a lot of elbow room, much less personal boogie space. Claustrophobics should be forewarned that the atmosphere can feel like a cramped juke joint (minus, sadly, booze sales during the performance); equally alerted should be those whose bodies are easily overcome by the rhythms and melodies of the late, great composer William Christopher Handy (1873-1958), a historian, composer, and elder statesman who is ranked right up there with the more commercially celebrated Duke Ellington. Reckless swaying by the possessed will resort in severe frowns from your neighbor, at best, and tort litigation, at worst.
But back to that self-conscious white guy thing. The issue of cross-cultural appreciation and co-optation of black music by white musicians and audiences has begun to anger some black historians who are upset that oversensitive Anglos and hostile African-American scholars have made this an issue at all. The last decade has seen an explosion of black jazz musicians interpreting the European classical canon, they argue, so it cuts both ways. The point is, this is American music. Hell, Handy's famous statue in Memphis has stood next to Elvis Presley's for ages (although that's not necessarily something I approve of). Keeping this in mind, you realize everyone from Frank Sinatra to Led Zeppelin owes a debt to the work of Handy, who was not so much a blues or jazz musician himself as he was a gifted tributary through which these ragged rural and urban sounds flowed into the popular music well. As for cultural barriers, the well-educated Handy, the grandson and son of African Methodist ministers, faced something of a class issue himself in the post-Civil War South. When Handy's father realized his son was going out in the labor fields, train stations, and speakeasies studying and recruiting musicians, the elder reportedly declared he'd rather follow Handy's hearse than his musical career.
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Jubilee Theatre adapters Rudy Eastman and Joe Rogers have decided to shuck historical context with The Sho-Nuf Blues and just present a straightforward program of 22 songs in two acts with a cast of four singer-dancers. Set designer Roger Ross has constructed a simple but snappy Harlem mini-nightclub scene with a big white full moon that converts to a lunar sliver for just the right numbers, as when a trampily nasal-voiced, boa-draped Shantha Gates reclines inside for a comically yearning "Stingaree Blues." It would've been nice for the cast to present a little more information about Handy or at least the kind of clever patter in which singer Kevin Haliburton occasionally engages-one introduction promises to take us through the history of black American music from spirituals to the blues to jazz "in five minutes, or maybe six." Then again, it would be a crime to transform The Sho-Nuf Blues into a sterile music appreciation lesson. My right brain yearns for more fun facts about the almost curatorial work of Handy, but my left brain eagerly seized the chance to stay in the driver's seat for 90 minutes and joy-ride around the sensuous curves, over the elating crests, and down into the mournful ditches of the man's composition. These were performed so flawlessly, not incidentally, by a trio including musical director Rogers on piano that I thought the music had been taped prior to performance. But no, that was Rogers, Eddie Dunlap on drums, and Chris White on bass sweating it out inside a cramped space behind a black curtain above stage left.
On the subject of narration or background, Jubilee's show does prove that lyrics were always one of W.C. Handy's fortes; these tunes tell pretty detailed adventures all by their lonesome. Indeed, listening to the somber spiritual desire of "Train's A-Comin'" and contrasting that with the late-life alcoholic throwdown of "Vesta and Mattie's Blues," I realized how The Sho-Nuff Blues finds a wide range of anecdotes that are recognizable in and out of black culture. It reminded me a bit of New Theatre Company's recent Cole Porter revue Night and Day, in which director Bruce Coleman wrote a book to introduce the life of gay great Porter, hopefully giving his audiences the chance to decode some of the messages Porter was sending to hungry homosexuals even as the celebrated songwriter charmed oblivious heterosexuals in the first half of the 20th century. And just like pre-Stonewall gay performers, black musicians were often prevented by the dominant culture from saying what they really wanted to say. Ticketbuyers for black performers were usually segregated by race, and these musicians often had a different set of lyrics for white and black audiences. White audiences heard songs of persecution with words like "rich man" or "boss," while blacks might hear "peckerwood" or other anti-Anglo slang. The insults were still there euphemistically for white audiences, but if you understood them, you probably considered yourself enough of a (dare I say it?) "white Negro" to at least appreciate you knew the score. A few Jubilee program notes on this subject-maybe even a small glossary-might have enlightened Anglos and African-Americans who are strangers to the blues idiom.
But while you're sitting inside the Jubilee Theatre listening, the quartet of voices that graces The Sho-Nuf Blues pretty much wrestles such rational considerations to the floor. All have fine moments, but I want especially to mention Kevin Haliburton and Carolyn Hatcher for their ferocious vocal artistry. Whether he's opining that you never know what's going on in a woman's mind, especially if she's from Harlem, in "Harlem Blues," or honking and growling his sorrows in "Blind Man Blues" with co-star Chanina Mwikuta, he comes across as the kind of full-throated musical comic from a by-gone era you suspect was too glorious to have ever happened. The next time I attend a performance by the sublime Carolyn Hatcher, I will ask to kiss her hand. Her intro on "St. Louis Blues" is as good as Bessie's, Etta's, or any artist's I've heard, and she makes "Ever After On" into a wry mini-anthem for the hope that infuses this show's blissful American art form, a genre that has the undeserved reputation for bottomless despair.
The Sho-Nuf Blues runs through January 3. Call (817) 338-4411.