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Joe Louis Blues 

Performances at Thick House

Wednesday, Nov 22 2000
The mottled, brown wall of a nightclub office in 1930s Harlem looks solid enough, but a sharp spotlight reveals it to be a scrim, which lets us see what the characters only hear on an old-fashioned radio -- Joe Louis winning his famous boxing match in 1942. After the fight he walks into the nightclub, and falls for one of the radio listeners, a singer named Leila Rivers. Leila goes home with him to help her career. She's also going out with another man, Demas Dean, who plays cornet in Sidney Bechet's combo at the club. An unspoken rivalry between Demas and Louis (or man and demigod) makes up one thread of this play. Another thread is Louis' disastrous run-in with the IRS, which helps to ruin him financially; yet another is the recording of the song "King Joe (Joe Louis Blues)" by Count Basie, Paul Robeson, and Bechet. Oliver Mayer's script weaves history and fiction in a likable way, but it meanders and comes to an unconvincing, half-tragic end. Hansford Prince plays a strong Joe Louis, Rhonnie Washington does a nicely dignified, half-stoned Bechet, and Louis Parnell is a funny downtown manager who gets his nose punched. However, L. Peter Callender has no control over his Creole accent as the smooth Caribbean club owner, and Marcie Henderson can't hold up her role as Leila, who links all the characters. She's apparently been hired for her excellent singing voice, but her scenes are flat, and flatten the play.


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