Friday, December 19, 2014

The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel by Levy Lee Simon

L - R - Kem Saunders, Dwain A. Perry, Jah Shams - Photos Tomoko Matsushita

By Joe Straw

Still, the Dunbar Hotel stands, the white stone fenestration around the windows and entryways are welcoming, while the red brick and masonry blazes majestically at 4225 S. Central Avenue in Los Angeles.  

On the first floor, the lanterns are perched like hungry birds staring through the arch windows.  And the “Hotel Dunbar” sign, perched a rusty red brown, is still visible on the northeast corner between the melancholy third and the jazzy diabolical fourth floors.

Magnificently built by skilled African Americans tradesmen in the year 1928 and financed by the black community leaders – John and Vada Somerville, this was a hotel where “Negros” could stay in segregated Los Angeles.

Today the wayward branches of a ficus tree limit the view of the inhabitants peering down on South Central Avenue. The branches propagate gloriously where once the rich and famous came to see and be seen.  Nowadays the sightseeing is all but a silent idea from bygone days and only ghostly images from the past haunt the stairwells.  You can see them if you were born with a veil over your face.   

At one time, the hotel had 115 rooms, now there are 72 apartments for senior citizens. The inhabitants keep the rooms quiet, a suspenseful silence, waiting for the inevitable that comes to all things and places. The current events matter little nowadays.  What matters is how this was done, how they got here, and where it will all end. And to that end, the story continues.  

The Robey Theatre Company in association with The Los Angeles Theatre Center presents The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel written by Levy Lee Simon and directed by Ben Guillory now extended through December 28, 2014.

The play, The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel, is a wonderful historical time capsule, opened in a theatrical setting, giving startling revelations of stories and events of famous people in fleeting moments of time.  There is a magnificent history here and where the Dunbar will end no one really knows. By all means – and in this standing room only performance – this was an exceptional night of theatre.  The play was filled with music, conflict and comedy and I couldn’t help but think: Is there is a bigger show here, a film, possibly a musical?

They stand together, Minnie Lomax (Tiffany Coty) and Lucius Lomax (Dwain A. Perry), embracing in barely breathable space.  She is in her bright red dress, pearl necklace, and white shoes and he elegantly dapper in a tailor made suit. 

Lomax hardly comprehends their recent purchase of The Summerville Hotel. But in that space, there is conflict as to the name of the hotel.  “The Summerville Hotel” is done.  Minnie wants the name to be “The Dunbar Hotel” in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar, an American Poet.

Minnie takes a moment to read Dunbar’s poetry and seduces the name into Lucius’s collective consciousness until the words congers up the spirit of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Julio Hanson) who decides that inhabiting the hotel for the eternal time being might not be such a bad idea.    

The year is 1931, in the not so early morning hours of the day, when Leonard Lennox Jones (Melvin Ishmael Johnson), the assistant manager of the Dunbar Hotel, is wondering why the new girl, Gloria Ann Pedigrew (Ashlee Olivia), is always late. And when she finally arrives, he lets her have it.  Not to be outdone, Pedigrew gives it right back.

“Old crow!” – Gloria Ann Pedigrew

“Old crow?  You can’t call me an old crow.” – Leonard Lennox Jones

Jones threatens her with a dismissal and then looks for the boss.

Meanwhile, in the diner, Paul Robeson (Jah Shams), in fine attire, flirts with Vera Cunningham (Vanja Renee), the waitress.  Or is it the other way around? Vera unbuttons the top button of her waitress uniform, making sure there’s enough to entice this famous entertainer should things swing her way.   She asks if he would like his eggs “hard”.

Robeson opens the paper and is immediately troubled by an article. He sneers at the contents and sets the paper aside when Lomax sits with him at the table. They discuss the article, written by Charlotta Bass (Cydney Wayne Davis), about the KKK in California.  Lomax says he carries a weapon to even things out around the hotel should the need arise.  

Lennox Jones interrupts Lomax and says that Pedigrew is always late and that she called him an old crow to boot. Lomax responds that Pedigrew must need a raise and Jones should bring her to his office. Jones grumbles his way up the stairs to get her.

Meanwhile Maybell Smith (Rhonda Stubbins White), a longtime hotel housekeeper, tells Pedigrew that she has got a very nice job, with a nice employer who pays on time.  But, suddenly Jones interrupts them.  Jones tells Ms. Pedigrew that Lomax wants to see her immediately.  

Maybell sees where all this is going and she threatens Jones.  

Pedigrew walks into Lomax office expecting the worse and Lomax asks her about her outside relationship.   She says she’s in love and wants to marry Pee Wee (Kyle Connor McDuffie) who is now in Louisiana. 

“You think you need more money?” – Lucius Lomax

“Yes sir, I sure do!” – Ms. Pedigrew

Lomax says that if she can get to work on time he will more than double her salary. Pedigrew hugs him happily and runs back up stairs.

Jack Johnson (Kem Saunders), boxing heavyweight champion, arrives with cigar in hand and declares that he will open a nightclub in the hotel. He also takes a fancy to Vera.

“Vera’s enough to come back to black.” – Jack Johnson

Later, upstairs, a smooth talking man, John Kinloch (Jason Mimms), Charlotta Bass’ nephew, tries to seduce Ms. Pedigrew and this is not the first time.  Ms. Pedigrew says that Pee Wee is coming and she wants to break it off, but oh so delicately as she waffles into his arms. Maybell catches them purring about and John Kinlock leaves the room.  

“That boy likes anything.  Is he the reason you can’t get to work on time?” – Maybelle

Vera, making her move, gets Paul Robeson to sing for her and the others sing as well but that doesn’t sit too well with Dr. Vada Somerville (Elizabeth June) and her husband Dr. John Somerville (Doug Jewell). They think turning the Dunbar Hotel into a nightclub is a grave sin.

John and Veda will start a protest against the hotel to stop all devious thoughts and transgressions that come with music and especially jazz, insinuating the hotel will become a brothel, like the one that Lucius Lomax’s sister is running in San Francisco.

“Negros, I swear.” – Lucius Lomax  

W.E.B. DuBois (Tommy Hicks), sitting quietly at a table, stands and addresses the confused in the lobby.

“What would the Negro be without music?  As long as the Negro has music, the Negro has hope.” – W.E.B DuBois.

And with that statement, a blessing has been given to the Dunbar Hotel.

Levy Lee Simon has written a marvelous play that everyone should go out and see. Simon writes about the creation, the selling of the Dunbar to white investors, and then the making of the historical monument that is the hotel today.  But the play ends on a sad note, the downbeat, rather than the lively, jazzy, smoking’ hot remembrances that is recalled.  Take the last scene, move it to the first scene, add a little bit of theatrical magic, and keep it smoking’ from there on out. Have your highs and lows but always leave them happy and wanting more.

Ben Guillory, the director, has done an equally amazing job with the actors and the words.  This was a glorious night of theatre! The Dunbar is more than a hotel; it is a place that has been created by the thoughts and deeds of the characters as though they have built the hotel one brick at a time. And moving in that direction with that idea in mind I think would elevate the play.

This is an amazing cast for which I have a few thoughts relating to the “one brick at a time” idea.  

Jovan Adepo is Reverend Donovan Clayton Russell, an articulate gay man who loves to diffuse conflict. Russell is an interesting character in that he has two things working against him, his color and being gay.  But this bothers him little.  Adepo gives Russell a lot of bravado but missing a strong conflict that keeps him from his objective. What stops Russell from getting what he wants?  And, how does his way of life fit with what is the Dunbar today?

L - R Elizabeth June and Tiffany Coty 

Tiffany Coty does a superb job as Minnie Lomax and Lena Horne.  Coty gives Horne a lot of grit and power as though she owned the hotel. Horne stands tall and proud.  Coty has a marvelous voice, performs the songs superbly, and does a grand impersonation of Ms. Horne.    

Cydney Wayne Davis plays Charlotta Bass and Ivie Anderson and I could watch her all night long.  She has a very lovely voice to top everything else off and a lot of life on stage.  (But you all knew that.)

Eddie Goines does some fantastic work as Duke Ellington, Joe Louis, and Officer Tom Bradley.  One especially liked the voice of Duke Ellington, funny and odd all in the same moment.  There is something missing in his objective and how that all fits in the end.  For example, here is a man that made the Dunbar, made it his home and, in the end, he is the first to leave without the appearance of giving it much thought. More should be given to that moment.   

Julio Hanson plays Paul Laurence Dunbar, the ghost who only appears to one person.  Hanson does a fine job, but having the poetry relate to what is going on, on stage, has its own peculiarities.  Hanson would do better to find a way to make the poetry work as it relates to the overall piece of the play. And how does the poetry build the Dunbar and move the play along?

Tommy Hicks give a marvelous performance as W.E.B. Dubois.  The characterization is subtle and true.  And Hicks movements on stage portray not one false note.  And to top that off his voice is inspiring.  It is through his words, his personal poetry, that the bricks remain strong today.

Doug Jewell plays Dr. John Somerville, complete with a Jamaican accent and a fantastic bowler.

Melvin Ishmael Johnson is Leonard Lennox Jones and was by far the audience’s favorite and the work on stage was very fine indeed.

Elizabeth June plays Dr. Vada Somerville, and has a great time as Ethel Waters, saucy, sassy, and not giving one inch of her vocal prowess to her counterpart.  Waters gave the hotel a structural legacy.  June also plays Jan Perry.

Kyle Connor McDuffie comes in as Pee Wee and as certainly not a peewee because he is in fact against type, a tall statuesque actor. Pee Wee enters as a country bumpkin and in the end has grown in manner and style.  McDuffie has a strong voice and a strong presence. There must be more to this character and his relationship to the Dunbar that I’m not quite getting.

Jason Mimms plays John Kinloch with a commanding dignity and a very strong voice.  There is a lot of larceny in his character and it is visible with some very nice character traits in his performance.  

Ashlee Olivia plays Gloria Ann Pedigrew.  Olivia is a fantastic actor that shows us her subtle thoughts one minute and glorious physical actions the next. She is a complete actress that I could watch her every moment that she is on stage. It is another performance not to miss.

Dwain A Perry gives a very strong performance as Lucius Lomax a man that appears to have complete control over his domain.  This is a grand role for Perry as it shows his strengths in voice, movement and character. That said, there might be room for doubt in the mind of the character, doubt about the music, the people that frequent his establishment, and doubt about losing ownership.  Something happens to the character with which we are not privy to, how he lost the hotel, why he lost it and what he does to get it back.

Vanja Renee plays Vera Cunningham and is an incredible actor who provides us with wonderful lovely moments onstage. Renee has a wonderful way about her on the stage and the hotel needs her beauty and humor.  

Kem Saunders as Jack Johnson has a very strong charisma on stage.  More could be made with his desire and ability to get the music up and running at the hotel. After all, it is his strength and power that puts the music in the hotel.

Jah Shams has an eerie resemblance to Paul Robeson and does a nice job with the character.  Robeson’s voice was very powerful and Shams should try to match that power.  He also plays a police officer.

Petal d’Avril Walker plays Almena Davis Lomax with grace.  

Sammie Wayne, IV has a great opening moment in Chester Himes, a writer.  It is a very somber but menacing look of one who is about to strike with any remark that could be considered rank.  Himes is at the Dunbar, but Wayne doesn’t give us the reason why he is there. The why needs to be incorporated into the character and that will help us to discover why he is one of the bricks of the Dunbar.  Wayne appears, at times, to be searching for the words, which could be a natural affectation or a character choice.  If it is an affectation, Wayne should find a way to make it part of this character.  Naytheless Wayne is very interesting and growing as an actor – always a good thing.

Rhonda Stubbins White is very fine as Maybelle Smith.  It’s the little things she does that make her shine.  She is the rock that keeps them all together.  It is a very fine performance.

Vanoy Burnough plays Minnie Lomax and Lena Horne but did not perform the night I was there.

Other members of the production team are as follows:

Assistant Director – Robert Clements
Production Stage Manager – B’ANCA
Set Design – Michael D. Ricks
Lighting Design – Michael D. Ricks
Costume Design – Naila Aladdin Sanders
Music Composer – Michael McTaggart
Sound Design – Kimberly M. Wilson
Graphics Design – Jason Mimms
Multimedia Design – Harold Sylvester
Production Photographer – Tomoko Matsushita
Prop Master – Robert Clements
Publicist – Phillip Sokoloff
Marketing/PR Director – Camille Wyatt
Development Director – Judith Bowman
Youth Outreach Coordinator – Noreen McClendon
Youth Outreach Coordinator – Millena Gay
Youth Outreach Coordinator – Sheila Dorn
Vocal Coach – Cydney Wayne Davis (oh yes!)
Choreographer – Kellie Dantzler
Archival Photographer – Michael Blaze

Video Technicians

Luis Quintero – Director of Photography, A-Camera Operator, Editor
Ronald Ateman – B-Camera Operator
Harold Sylvester III – Best Boy, Camera Assistant
Nicole Honore – Continuity, Montage Manager
Kenneth Brown – Lighting Vendor

Run!  Run!  Run!  And take a friend who loves the rich history of Los Angeles.

RESERVATIONS: (866) 811-4111.


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