Critic’s notes: In Pasadena, Jammin’ with Jelly Roll Morton

Dance · Theater
Janaya Mahealani Jones, Naomi C. Walley, Cyd Charisse Glover-Hill
Jelly’s Last Jam / photo by Jeff Lorch

It doesn’t get more rollicking than the scene in the photo above, a trio of triple-threat red-hot mamas bumping and grinding in their bawdy-house skivvies in Dell Howlett’s well-crafted choreography for Jelly’s Last Jam, now on at the venerable Pasadena Playhouse.

The historic bulwark of live theater in Los Angeles, the Playhouse is on the cusp of its centenary in 2025. That’s huge! Just last year, it was gifted a Tony Award as the nation’s Best Regional Theater. The production, a revival of a vastly important theatrical pageant on the life of jazz man Jelly Roll Morton, is so crammed with dancing, the transitions between stillness and movement are hard to discern.

Author/director George C. Wolfe‘s much-loved play, nearly (but not) a revue, is a cultural happening with Los Angeles roots. The show’s pre-Broadway genesis was brought about by Wolfe, then a wunderkind, determined to restore the legacy of the gone-missing jazz pioneer. Wolff’s no-holds-barred treatment of the New Orleans-born, Chicago-based master of ragtime, blues, African rhythms as an anti-hero, warts and all, blew the lid off the Mark Taper Forum under the aegis of the great multicultural theater producer, Gordon Davidson. And Morton died in Los Angeles, in 1941.

The production serves a multiracial audience in Pasadena well. Talent spilled with over the lip of the Playhouse Stage, memorably, John Clarence Stewart in the titular role in strong voice, and Jasmine Amy Rogers as his female swain, however laden she was by a hugely difficult bedroom scene, one of the show’s least compelling, and most uncomfortable moments. For Jelly‘s, surprisingly, however filled with verve, comes across as a work of seminal importance, but it feels dated. In its day, it burst upon the white theatrical world with an untrammeled display of American Blackness — what the French called “Negritude.” Indeed Kent Gash, the director of the Playhouse revival, admits as much in program notes, calling out the show’s treatment of,

Black life. The grit and the gravy. Not a reflection of Blackness sanitized to make White culture comfortable. Powerful, exhilarating and thoughtful. Black aesthetics. Jazz aesthetics. [George] Wolfe aesthetics.

So while Jelly’s Last Jam brings marvelous music and dance (on that front, Doran Butler, a string bean of a tap dancer and a protege of Debbie Allen, gave a textbook lesson on how to steal a show. He is a brilliant, live-wire of a performer with all the right instincts), it has baggage of another variety.

The show rather ruthlessly airs the internecine family squabbles of Black society, shown as vivid people writhing beneath the stifling cloak of discrimination. The dialogue is laden with the “n” word, with the c**n word; and much is made of Jelly’s Creole birthright, yes, on a class basis, but also in terms of the relative darkness or lightness of his skin tone. There is much hyper sexualization of both men and women. I found this odd to witness, and maybe that’s good. What I do sense is that, in 1992, this show was an expression of cultural liberation. But is it now? Do these petty jealousies, expressions of anger and animosity that motor an otherwise celebratory show still have relevance? Much in the show eluded me–for example, among the show’s more salient points revealed Jelly’s exploitation by music publishers … a most germane topic raised, but quickly lost. Fresh theatrical devices of thirty years ago have become worn tropes, example, the Chimney Man (Cress Williams, whose costume needs revisiting) who acts as a moral deux ex machina figure plotting Jelly’s missteps. This feels hackneyed. What does not help is that the stage is dark, the set minimal, the actors are dressed in black.

I never saw Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway, and I admire the Playhouse for taking on this whopping, grand-scaled, challenging show. There’s great singing, some very nicely shaped choreography, and excellent dancing. And it’s always fun to have drinks, socialize and people-watch in the Playhouse’s marvelous patio.

Jelly’s Last Jam gave the world the gift of Gregory Hines and Savion Glover moving to Jelly Roll Morton’s music. My quibbles aside, I would not have missed it. I cannot close without saying how much I love the title of this show. Poetry in clear-cut English.

Debra Levine is the founder/publisher/editor of artsmeme, now in its sixteenth year of arts-blogging.

Jelly’s Last Jam | Pasadena Playhouse | through June 23

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