Peggy: An African American woman in her late twenties. She is a tenor saxophone player in the all female big band the “International Rhythm Darlings” from the Swing era.
Vi: African American woman in her late twenties or thirtyish. She and Peggy were two of the original “Darlings” when it was a school band.
Rhoda: Late twenties, early thirties. She is Jewish and the first white woman in the all female big band the “International Rhythm Darlings”.
Jerome: An African American man in his thirties or forties. A jovial, lovable sharecropper. Needs to tap dance a little and Jitterbug.
Policeman: A white man from the Jim Crow South.
Jazz Saxophone Player: Can double as Billie in prologue. The audience sees her, the characters on stage do not. She plays stylistically from ’40’s swing to contemporary improvisational jazz fusion.
PROLOGUE CHARACTERS To be double cast from above
Waitress: African American woman in her twenties (can double)
Billy: African American bar patron/jazz musician in his twenties or thirties (can double)
T.C.: African American man, high spirited jazz musician in his twenties or thirties (can double)
An early version of RHYTHM DARLINGS premiered at Essential Theatre in Atlanta, GA as JIM CROW AND THE RHYTHM DARLINGS in 2009. An excerpt of the play was featured in the Alliance for Jewish Theatre Conference in Philadelphia in ’18.
Jim Crow and the Rhythm Darlings by Vynnie Meli Essential Theatre The post-reconstruction Jim Crow laws in the south have always been an easy target for patronizing northerners to aim their self-righteous indignation arrows at. Essentially segregation encoded into the legal system, these laws provided the means for bullies and bigots to openly terrorize anyone who didnt pass their rigid racial and religious muster. Whats not so easy to see are our own sub-conscious Jim Crow laws those expectations we all have that are just as rigid, just as cruel in their effects.
It is the special genius of Vynnie Melis marvelously intense Jim Crow and the Rhythm Darlings that it makes expected theatrical tension out of the usual cast of bullies and victims, but it also (ever so subtly) humanizes the bully and (ever so subtly) shows how the victims themselves participate in and even imitate this institutionalized bigotry. Stripped of its period and its drama, this is essentially a play about pretense, about achieving a goal by passing as something other. Starting off in a northern jazz bar, we see a group of musicians sharing a drink and a flirtation with a waitress. The men joke and brag and carry their masculinity as boldly as a fragile statue. The waitress is tired and not in the mood for their games. As the party breaks up, we follow the hot shot young sideman back home, to discover a secret that the band will probably never know. Jazz is, after all, a mans world.
After this syncopated, but minor-key prologue, we shift to few months later and a couple hundred miles farther south. Were in the dressing room of Vi and Peggy, two lady jazz musicians playing a gig in the deep south. Vi is a local girl returning home, well versed on the games that need to be played to pass in the Jim Crow south. Peggy is the savvy northerner, impatient with games, just wanting to play music. The wars in Europe and the South Pacific have created new opportunities for women in industry, in sports, and in the arts. And Peggy wants to ride that wave as long as she can. They are eventually joined by Rhoda, another member of the group. Actually white and Jewish, Rhoda is trying to pass for mulatto, so she too can play. But she has committed two unforgiveable sins she has gone out partying with a man of color, and she is sharing a dressing room with two woman of color. And a leering and bullying policeman is determined to see that the laws of the land are carried out. If I have one complaint about this piece, its that the prologue seems disconnected from the main body of the piece. A stronger connection could have been easily devised — since theyre played by the same actresses, why not make the Sideman and the Waitress actually be Vi and Peggy? And, if the prologue band is choosing its name at that time, why does the dressing room set feature a faded poster bearing their name only a few months later? Still, the piece is united by the theme of Passing Passing for Male, Passing for Black, Passing for Christian, Passing for Human and by the presence of musician Delesa Sims, underscoring all with her hot sax and cool moods.
Politics and Themes aside, this is a play about music, and about people who love that music, women who will do whatever it takes to play it (wherever it takes them). Vi is fully aware of the risks involved with returning home she KNOWS what these people are capable of yet the lure of the music is simply too much to resist. Director Betty Hart has orchestrated a beautifully realized ensemble. Enisha Brewster embodies Vi with a world-weary acquiescence that centers the play and grounds the angry rants and flourishes given to Peggy by DeAndrea Crawford. Rachel Bodenstein gives Rhoda a funk and rhythm that should fully convince anyone of her fictional heritage, unless, of course, they were predisposed to think the worse of anything told to them in a black musicians dressing room. And Daniel Burnley gives the red-neck policeman a loathsome quality that makes us dislike him at sight (he is so close to being a stereotype), but he has a moment of grace early on that makes his later actions even more difficult to watch. Nadir Mateen does yeoman work in a handful of other (token) male roles.
As this is part of a repertory of plays, Rob Hadaways set is spare and portable (easily moved wall pieces and furnishings). Yet, in combination with Trish Harris lighting, it is very evocative of the period, and serves the story very well. And, the final confrontation is edge-of-seat tense, edge-of-reason cruel. The resolution depends solely on how well Ms. Meli and the cast have created these characters, how well Peggy has assessed the policemans fears and assumptions, how well Ms. Sims music captures and builds the suspense. That the scene succeeds so well is a testament to the work of writer, director, cast, and crew. Jim Crow and the Rhythm Darlings is a short (80 minutes) riff on a familiar theme. It starts out with one group of characters, but quickly passes on the melody to another, showing us ecstatic and dramatic variations, a literary counterpart to a hot jam session, with the key changing with a flick of a make-up sponge or a policemans baton.
Its a play about passing that you would be foolish to pass on by. — Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
Approximately 80 minutes
Preview available here