by Lynn on May 4, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Theatre Orangeville, Orangeville, Ont. Playing until May 12, 2024.

Written by Leslie McCurdy with Cassel Miles

Directed by David Nairn

Musical director, Nicholas Mustapha

Choreographer, Candace Jennings

Co-set designer, Beckie Morris and Lisa Lahue

Costumes by Alex Amini

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Cast: Leslie McCurdy

Cassel Miles

Band: Matthew Leombruni-Bassist

Nicolas Mustapha-Piano

Matteo Romaniello-Drums

An important musical revue told with insight, sensitivity and joy.

The Darktown Stutters’ Ball is about identity in a way, finding it and embracing it especially with the challenges that come with it.

The show is billed as a ‘compelling new musical revue’ which chronicles the contribution and stories of Black artists in the 20th century and how they paved the way for other Black artists to tell their stories and those of others. The Darktown Strutters’ Ball by Leslie McCurdy with Cassel Miles chronicles the contributions of Black artists to music, theatre etc.

Of course, the title is ‘borrowed’ from the song “At the Darktown Strutters Ball” that was written by Shelton Brooks, born May 4, 1886 – September 6, 1975. Shelton Brooks was a Canadian-born African American composer and performer of popular music and jazz.

He was known for his ragtime and vaudeville style, and wrote some of the biggest hits of the first third of the 20th century; including “Some of These Days” and “At the Darktown Strutters’ Ball“.  Brooks was born in Amherstburg, Ont. His father was a minister and Brooks taught himself music on their church’s pump organ. His family moved to Detroit in 1901. This is where Brooks first made his name in music and comedy.  Brooks sang, played piano, and performed on the vaudeville circuit (notably, as a Bert Williams imitator) as well as having a successful songwriting career. His first hit song was “Some of These Days” which became the signature song for Sophie Tucker. He had a radio show on CBS in the 1930s. Shelton Brooks had a huge career. Shelton Brooks’ song, The Darktown Strutters’ Ball  was the earliest jazz recording and it made Shelton Brooks the first superstar in the music business.

The show also notes the huge contribution of Florence Mills (who was the partner of Shelton Brooks until she died), Bert Williams, Bojangles Robinson, Billy Holiday with her devastating song, “Strange Fruit’, Josephine Baker who went to France because America was not hospitable, Nina Simone, Paul Robeson, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, The Supremes, Gil Scott Heron, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Bob Marley, Queen Latifah and ends with fittingly with Canadian Oscar Peterson.

The Darktown Strutters’ Ball is written by Leslie McCurdy, who had the idea, and she performs it with her great friend Cassel Miles. Both are Black.  Leslie McCurdy is a force of commitment and determination. She has done a one woman show on Harriet Tubman and one on various black women in Canadian history in her show, Things My Four-Sisters Saw.” I’ve seen Cassel Miles act in straight plays like Driving Miss Daisy and Spaciousness. He is a fastidious actor, paying attention to the smallest detail of his characters. Here he sings and dances as well.

Both Leslie McCurdy and Cassel Miles are training and they bring their considerable dancing, acting and singing training to create a fascinating show. Both friends work beautifully together, riffing off each other’s stories, adding to them or just being amazed at the information being offered on these notable talents in history.

Both performers had a trunk with props, costumes and other stuff. There was a rack of clothes from which to pick a costume to illuminate a character and his/her song. Both Leslie McCurdy and Cassel Miles were like kids in a candy story, dipping into the trunks with their many surprises and treasures.

One story was particularly harrowing. Bert Williams was a Black comedian and a member of the Ziegfield Follies in 1910. W.C. Fields called Bert Williams “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest.” Bert Williams was the first Black man to appear in the Follies and several members of the company went to Ziegfield and wanted Bert Williams fired because they didn’t want to perform on a stage with a Black man. Astonishing Ziegfield said that he could replace all the white performers but not Bert Williams. That settled the matter.

Interestingly, Bert Williams had to perform in Black face which was the norm when a white performer did a minstrel song. To illustrate this Cassel Miles carefully put on the black face over his own Black face and said, ‘can you imagine what that must have felt like for Bert Williams in a sense to hide his identity with this makeup?’ It was a sobering moment in a show full of them.

When you are documenting the contributions of Black performers in history, of course it’s serious, but there is also humour, tenacity, grit, bravery, and simple guts to perform. And these artists were celebrated and revered for their contribution.

Both Leslie McCurdy and Cassel Miles riff and dance together beautifully. They each brought information to the show that illuminated that time at the beginning of the 20th century. Choreographer, Candace Jennings recreated the dances of that time and used the performer’s dancing versatility to great purpose. David Nairn directed this with sensitivity, never getting in the way of the narrative. There was nice interplay with the band who also brought their own contributions to the evening.

If I have a quibble it’s that at times the balance of the sound of the band drowned out the performers. While they wore head microphones occasionally it sounded as if one or both of the microphones was not on. It’s always so tricky to have a band that is microphoned accompanying performers who are supposedly microphoned, and sometimes the singers are drowned out and hearing the actual lyrics is a problem.

However, on the whole, I thought the commitment, scholarship, research and open-hearted generosity of the show was a revelation of the huge contribution Black artists made to the theatre, Broadway, comedy, music, songwriting and the civil rights movement.

The Darktown Stutters’ Ball is both entertaining and enlightening. I loved it and found it very moving.

Theatre Orangeville presents:

Plays until May 12.

Running time: 90 minutes (1 intermission)

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Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.