Roz White, Jahi Kearse, and Gia Mora in Cool Papa’s Party (photograph by Colin Hovde)
In Cool Papa’s Party, director and author Thomas W. Jones II exhumes the life and times of showbiz legend and original hipster Sammy Davis, Jr. This séance of a Vegas variety show is both a charming love letter from one entertainer to another and a fast-paced history play that sometimes leaves contemporary audiences—strangers to hepcats scatting at the Sands and sharkskin suits sipping martinis at The Flamingo—in the dark.
In “Top Cat,” which smacks of Judy Blume wisdom, the titular character (played by Jahi Kearse) parks it at the edge of the stage and sings a heartfelt appeal to God, theoretically the “heppest” cat this side of eternity. in the first sign that this is not an all-ages production, Cool Papa’s earnest plea for divine guidance elicits snickers from the irreverent, under-35 crowd. But things get a little murkier from there.
The litany of historical references and period lingo preference an audience who has either lived through the era or studied it, meaning that strangers to Vegas history will find Cool Papa’s hard-knock-life narrative as hard to follow as his mercurial love life. In an effort to make his production more accessible, Jones peppers Cool Papa’s Party with summarial monologues, during which Kearse’s Cool Papa reflects on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But decoding what is essentially Civil Rights-themed slam poetry requires a lot of critical listening and inference-making on the part of the audience: The flow is tremendous and the allusions playful and amusing—but tune out for a second and next thing you know, Cool Papa is inexplicably cupping his left eye with one hand and whipping out an eye patch with the other, later proclaiming “It’s my party, and I’ll cry out my one eye if I want to!”
Cool Papa’s Party is more than just a running history lesson set to immaculate jazz (courtesy of composer, keyboardist and onstage conductor William Knowles)—it’s also a fantastic coupling of choreography and narrative. In “The List,” Cool Papa shrugs off blacklisters lined up in front of a giant American flag, and delivers the zinger, “I can’t get any blacker than this!”—ramping up the musical’s rumblings of double consciousness. In “I’m Gonna Be The One,” Cool Papa’s two-timing, womanizing ways are on display as he’s confronted by his newest wife and “the other woman,” who—along with dancers in mini dresses and knee-high gogo boots—compete for Cool Papa in a psychedelic dance number.
The seven capable cast members deliver knockout performances that almost make the audience forget that they’re in a converted lumber warehouse in Alexandria instead of at The Sands in Vegas (assuming they know what the Sands is). And though his method of conveyance needs tweaking, Jones’ sprawling musical touches on sophisticated national and personal identity issues, like second-class citizenship and an American brand of patriotism wrapped in idolatry and bigotry.
Cool Papa’s Party at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. (703) 548-9044. www.metrostage.org. $40-$45. Runs through March 15.