ALBANY, N.Y. — Some shows are never dated – for both good and bad reasons.
For instance, Park Playhouse plays the musical revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’ “ through July 24 at Albany’s Washington Park amphitheater. It features the music of Fats Waller, a black composer/musician who was popular in the New York City nightclub scene of the 1920s and 30s.
It’s a good thing that Waller’s music is still enjoyed by audiences some 70-80 years after they were written. It’s enthusiastic and fun. However, it’s sad to realize that so many of the racial issues addressed in the lyrics of several of the songs are still with us today.
The original 1978 production, created by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz did not shy away from the racial injustices that plagued Black musicians of that era. However, the show is remembered more for its entertainment value than for its social significance.
Which is understandable. It contains over 30 songs either written by Waller or strongly associated with him. Besides the title song, there are numbers like “This Joint is Jumpin’,” “I’m Gonna Sit Write Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “ Two Sleepy People,” and “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.” And those titles just scratch the surface of the many happy and vibrant songs in the work.
However, today, the issues of race are more front and forward, and to offer the work without emphasizing the inequitable treatment of the African-American population in our society would be negligent.
For certain, the issue isn’t overlooked in this effort. Park Playhouse asked Jean Remy-Monnay, who everyone knows simply as Remy, to direct the production. Remy is the founder of the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York and for over a decade the organization has been dedicated to telling Black stories to mostly Black audiences, and at the same time training a generation of actors of color who can populate area stages in all types of roles.
Indeed, in a recent telephone interview Remy said he accepted to direct on the condition that local auditions will be held so area performers could land a role. He said he is overjoyed that four of the five people in the cast are local.
Everyone involved in the production, especially Park Playhouse producing-artistic director Owen Smith, realizes Park Playhouse audiences come to the downtown Albany amphitheater in Washington Park for an evening of relaxing fun. He also recognizes that Park Playhouse has an obligation to serve minority audiences.
It is Remy’s hope that audiences will leave enlightened as well as entertained. He says he tells the actors when they aren’t singing they should be thinking not only about the words and music, but also how it felt to be performing for a white audience at a place like the Waldorf Astoria and yet not be permitted to step foot in the lobby when they were finished. His theory is that if the performers understand the emotions that are underneath the joyous performances, so will the audience.
One instance is “The Viper’s Song,” about a man smoking an illegal joint. Remy says he directed the actor to do the number realizing that if caught by the police the penalty for such an action would be more severe for a Black man than if he were white. The number promises to be a bit more furtive without losing the fun that usually takes place by the reactions of others in the scene.
For moments like this that combine both fun and added tension he swears devotion to his collaborators. Park Playhouse regulars Brian Axford is musical director and Ashley-Simone Kirchner is the choreographer. This is the first musical Remy has ever directed and he admits it was a project he initially feared.
“Owen (Smith) promised me the best support and he did it, says Remy. “Brian and Ashley are so talented and inventive it took a lot of pressure off me. I am grateful not only for their skill but for being such good people. They understand what this show is about.”
What the show is about can be found in the song, “Black and Blue,” which contains the lyrics, “Cause you’re black, folks think you lack. They laugh at you, scorn you too. What did I do to be so black and blue?”
Remy knows the song alone will move the audience, but he points out it deliberately follows “Fat and Greasy.” His point is “Fat and Greasy” encourages people to laugh at jokes that insult. When it is followed by “Black and Blue,” the audience connects the two numbers to be aware of the cruel depreciation Blacks are subject to on a constant basis.
His goal for the audience is the same as his own experience with the music of Fats Waller. He says, “I’ve always listened to his music, but I never really listened.”
At Park Playhouse, audiences will get a chance to listen to songs written 70 and 80 years ago that still speak to today’s problems. It runs Tuesdays through Saturdays until July 24, with bleacher seats offered free of charge on a first come first served basis.
For reserved seats call (518) 434-0776.