"Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees"
The racial divide in the U.S. has always been prominent. In the 1940s, however, the universal language of music helped to bridge the gap in New York City and launch a few iconic musical careers. Cafe Society was located in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan and was run by Barney Josephson, son of Latvian Jewish immigrants. Josephson was a lover of jazz music and had a sharp eye for recognizing talent. Artists who would become luminaries for the genre such as Billie Holiday, Big Joe Turner and Carol Channing frequented this local watering hole.
The musical Cafe Society Swing written by Alex Webb is running at the 59E59 Theaters until December 31. It provides a clever history lesson of the iconic nightclub. The narrative is told through the eyes of a news reporter (Evan Pappas) intrigued by Mr. Josephson's establishment. The reporter attends the club regularly, thus he has an excellent firsthand witness to share with his readers. The small space at 59E59 Theaters lends perfectly to the play's set design which comprises a house band flanked by a reporter's desk to the right. The story of Cafe Society is beautifully intertwined with facts about the era and musical numbers reflecting common themes and performers of that day.
The set and costume designer David Woodhead nailed the fashion style of the time period and the big band set up of the day. The Cafe Society Swing band further emphasized the content of the play by including musicians of diverse race and gender. The audience experienced an authentic night at Cafe Society in the ‘40s. The first number for the night, "Rollin," was sung by Allan Harris, who doubled as the band's guitarist. The tune was reminiscent of New Orleans swing jazz -- a syncopated groove with sweet horn arrangements. Jazz vocalists like Billie Holiday, affectionately known as 'Lady Day,' made their home at Café Society. Day was known to have a drug and alcohol problem in her later years, which the reporter referenced before she sang "What A Little Moonlight Can Do.”
Vocalist Charenee Wade played the role of Lady Day with a robust and seasoned voice; it was a true homage to the jazz great. The tune was a mellow jazz ballad which featured a muted trumpet. The next vocalist to grace the stage in the storyline was Cyrille Aimée who played the “high yellow Lena Horne,” as referenced by the reporter. She sang classics "Stormy Weather" and "Where or When." Cyrille is an acclaimed jazz vocalist with a soft yet powerful voice, executing each number with the utmost precision.
An important part of the history of Cafe Society was the social and political climate during the club's tenure. In the U.S., segregation was still legal, World War I was raging, and the rise of communism was a huge media topic. The term 'red scare' was popularized during this time for the fear of communism infiltrating American soil. The government kept a close watch on many citizens they deemed 'enemies of the state.’ The claims against citizens many times were false and became glorified witch-hunting in disguise. Barney Josephson and the Cafe Society club were always under fire their alleged communist activity. Barney's brother Leon was a self-proclaimed communist who would be called to testify before Congress about his actions.
Josephson continued to press through the controversy with the first integrated house band, singers, and patrons. The motto Cafe Society used to emphasize their outsider status was "the wrong place for the right people.” As the reporter divulged, Cafe Society was a meeting place for the high class and low class alike. This common ground for great jazz music and other genres continued to draw a crowd. The club even saw gospel make its way onto the stage with performances by Sis. Rosetta Tharpe. Charenee Wade sang Tharpe's signature tune "Rock Me," which was written by Tharpe and Thomas Dorsey. Cafe Society was also known as the first place anyone heard Count Basie. Count Basie is a legend in the jazz world, but all legends have to have a start somewhere.
Even the narrating reporter performed a duet with Cyrille Aimée entitled "Closing Time," showcasing his own vocal ability. The chemistry between the two on stage was masterful. A candid talk between the two after the song reveals the reporter's real reason for attending the club on a regular basis. The scene closes out with the reporter having a change of heart in his own investigative motives. Cafe Society also made way for international artists to receive exposure. A story is told about Josephine Baker requesting a mere $8,000 a week to perform at the club, introducing a lovely French number called "Parlez Moi D'amour" sung by Cyrille Aimée. The English folk song "Lord Randall" was also featured, emphasizing the breadth of international talent that graced Cafe Society's stage.
Alex Webb is to be commended for weaving in the history of such an iconic New York CIty establishment, highlighting current events of the time period. If a viewer knew nothing about jazz, the late'30s/early '40s, or World War I, they will leave the theater educated immensely. The climate of today makes the timing of Cafe Society Swing a very good one. The play reminds us about the progress still needed in race relations. The evening I saw the play, the irony was that the majority of the audience was white. As our reporter smoothly switched roles to become the club's bartender, he mentioned how those at Cafe Society were like a family. The idea for the time was a very radical one, but one Barney Josephson believed in.
The night closed with a rousing and poignant rendition of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit.” The song was written by Abel Meeropol (Lewis Allan), a Jewish-American man from the Bronx. The song metaphorically speaks about racism in America and the grave practice of lynching African-Americans. It is a song that is as relevant today as it was in 1939. Cafe Society was the first place Billie Holiday ever performed the song. She recorded it later that year and it gained a lot of attention. The topic of race is one that seemingly will never leave American society. What I would have given to take a survey of the audience in attendance to find out who knew the song, what it was about, and how it made them feel.
Cafe Society Swing is a delightful historical journey with music at the center. The minimalist elements worked well for the content and provided an intimate experience. The play can be enjoyed by a great cross section of people.