Truth-in-advertising seldom finds such eloquent expression as in the show that’s currently transforming the Stables Arts Center into the city’s most inviting cabaret. Nap Does Simple’s Blues is just what it says it is: bluesman Nap Turner bringing to vivid, hilarious life the tales Langston Hughes wrote about his genial skeptic, Jesse B. “Simple” Semple.
Most of Stables’ low-ceilinged, black-box space has been curtained off, and the remainder has been dressed as an intimate nightspot—the sort of bar where Simple might have spent the 1950s complaining gruffly about his bunions and the women in his life. Five round tables (four with candles, one with a half-finished beer) look out on a vibrant Harlem streetscape as Turner is revealed in a spotlight, his slender frame all but hidden by the shadow of his fedora. “I am a way of life,” he recites in the resonant tones radio listeners can hear every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WPFW-FM’s The Bama Hour. “Above all, I am a personal expression. I am blues.”
And damned if he isn’t. To synthesizer riffs by Louis A. Jones, Turner launches into a reedy rendition of “I Feel Like a Stranger in My Own Hometown,” a sung lament that segues naturally into Simple’s spoken cavils about social conventions, girlfriends, and life in general. A straightforward soul with a knack for zeroing in on flaws in everyone’s reasoning but his own, Simple is engaging company. He tends to get the gist of things while missing specifics, as when he comments sagely on the problems “Ol’ Fella” had with Desdemona. But his observations are unfailingly on-target, whether he’s ruminating on what lies behind the Mona Lisa’s grin, inventorying the contents of a party girl’s purse, or recalling a testimonial dinner he got dragged to by his wife (“Joyce is a fiend for culture, like I’m a fiend for beer”) where, to his gleeful surprise, the guest of honor trashed the folks who were honoring him. Even when the incidents his stories recount have caused him considerable pain, they’re shot through with humor. They’re also infused with the down-to-earth poetry (“If you want to know about my life, don’t look at my face or my hands, look at my feet; see how long I been standing on ’em”) that makes Hughes’ writing so evocative.
Hughes began to write blues-based poems in the 1920s, a time when much of the arts establishment viewed the blues as essentially primal—the gut-level outpourings of an oppressed people. His work helped others recognize the music and lyrics as formal, crafted expression. So it’s appropriate that his deceptively casual stories about Simple, with their ironic wit and not-terribly-veiled social commentary, be interlaced here with melody.
Which is not to say the seams don’t show. Turner, who’s been singing the blues since the heyday of the Chitlin Circuit and New York’s Apollo Theater, is an old hand at the Simple tales, having often read passages from Hughes’ collection, The Best of Simple, between songs on his old radio show, Don’t Forget the Blues. For most of Nap Does Simple’s Blues, which lasts about an hour and is one of those rare theatrical evenings that leaves you wishing there were another act or two, he’s essentially duplicating that experience in the flesh, alternating musical numbers with readings from a black notebook.
To tie things together, co-directors Jennifer L. Nelson and Darryl V. Jones have fashioned some transitional dialogue (presumably drawn from Hughes’ work), aiming for the cohesive feel of a woozy bar conversation. It doesn’t quite come off. When conspiring on musical jokes, Turner’s easygoing storytelling blends effortlessly with Jones’ riffling keyboards. But when required to act, they stumble a bit, and the production marks time until they get back to doing what they do best.
These transitional moments are really the evening’s only weak spots though, since everything about the physical production—from Dan Covey’s wee-hours-of-the-morning lighting to Rik Freeman’s gaudy mural of Harlem in its heyday—is precisely right.
Nap Does Simple’s Blues marks a transition for the African Continuum Theater Coalition, an umbrella organization that has spent the last few years providing behind-the-scenes advice and services to the area’s 14 black theater companies. Renamed the African Continuum Theater Company, and reconstituted as a professional troupe with Equity actors, the group plans to put into practice the tenets about professionalism and accessibility that it has long preached. It’s hard, frankly, to imagine a more auspicious start.
Heather McDonald begins Faulkner’s Bicycle by having prodigal daughter Jett (Naomi Jacobson) awaken memories of her family by pulling sheets off pieces of furniture in the Oxford, Miss., home they all shared. Whisking damask off the piano, she reveals her mom (Mary Starnes), playing away animatedly. Uncovering a desk, she finds her sister Claire (Mary Ellen Nester) poring over old letters. It’s a wistful, slightly deceptive beginning for a show that will expend at least as much energy on shrouding its characters in sentiment as it does on unveiling them.
The year is 1962, and, as depicted by McDonald, who both wrote and directed the production at Theater of the First Amendment, the family has gone from being borderline eccentric to being outright odd. As Mom approaches senility (actually, she’s pretty much there—incontinent, scattered, and prone to drifting off to never-never land in mid-sentence), her daughters feel increasingly lost. Jett, having flailed aimlessly in all manner of exotic locales, has come home to build model boats as therapy. Claire, having never left the nest, finds that at 35 she regrets the road not taken. She’s spent the last few years reading and obsessing over novelist William Faulkner (Ralph Cosham), who whooshes by the house every day on his bike, whistling “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye” with such abandon that he often misses a curve in the road and plunges into a nearby pond.
Neither daughter regards the future with much anticipation. When Jett suggests that putting their mother in a home would give Claire more time, her sister’s response is an angry “More time? For what?” She will eventually screw up her courage and introduce herself to Faulkner, which leads to joining him in his eccentricities—throwing apples at the church choir, for instance—and then to love. It doesn’t really change her circumstances, but then, that’s not what author McDonald is after in a play that takes its moodiness very seriously.
Director McDonald ought, however, to have insisted on some sort of plot movement to complement the mood. Instead, she relies far too much on Scott Burgess’ musical underscoring, and on the respective wizardries of set designer James Kronzer, who’s cluttered the stage attractively with household detritus, and lighting designer Martha Mountain, who’s bathed it all in an amber glow. The result is that a lot of nice work—including fine acting and writing peppered with such evocative questions as “Why don’t spiders’ webs tear in the wind?”—ends up being curiously unaffecting.