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Jim Crow and the Rhythm Darlings

a Drama
by Vynnie Meli

COMPANY : Essential Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
ID# 3400

SHOWING : July 05, 2009 - August 02, 2009



Premiere.  A powerful and provocative drama about an all-female jazz band touring the Deep South during World War Two. Winner of the 2009 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award.

Director Betty Hart
Sound Design Thom Jenkins
Costume Design Jane Kroessig
Props Kathy Manning
Stage Manager Jim Walsh
Rhoda Rachel Bodenstein
Vi, Billy Enisha Brewster
Policeman Daniel Burnley
Peggy, Waitress DeAndrea Crawford
TC, Jerome, Soldier, Band Mgr Nadir Mateen
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production


by Dedalus
Friday, July 24, 2009
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 didn’t pass their rigid racial and religious muster.

What’s 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 Meli’s 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 man’s world.

After this syncopated, but minor-key prologue, we shift to few months later and a couple hundred miles farther south. We’re 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, it’s that the prologue seems disconnected from the main body of the piece. A stronger connection could have been easily devised -- since they’re 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 musician’s 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 Hadaway’s 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 policeman’s 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 policeman’s baton.

It’s a play about “passing” that you would be foolish to pass on by.

-- Brad Rudy (

Intriguing work in progress
by uppermiddlebrow
Sunday, July 19, 2009
It's tough to review Jim Crow and the Rhythm Darlings a couple of nights after seeing Blood Knot. Clearly, Essential Theatre's role in nurturing new plays is quite different from what Theatrical Outfit is doing with the tested-by-time modern classic from Athol Fugard.

As a workshop on what it might take to get from the ideas in Rhythm Darlings to the power and sensitivity of the accomplished Blood Knot, however, seeing the two plays in the same week is an intriguing experience. Vynnie Meli's play has a long way to go, but there are several dramatic moments that work well. The theme of a black girl jazz band touring the Deep and unreconstructed South during WW2 has plenty of interest. Throwing a Jewess alto sax into the mix, implausible though it sounds, is both based on historical fact and dramatically promising. The mutual incomprehension between her and an embittered Southern black band member also has great potential. We want to get to know these characters better and see whether they can develop convincingly, to become rounded humans who go beyond spouting at one another like college kids meeting in their first week as freshmen. The fact that we DO want to see and hear more is what suggests that the premise holds promise. The writing feels for now more like a series of episodes for a TV show than a unified stage play, and it might go either way.

While we're obviously not in the hands of masters like Kenny Leon and Tom Key, there's some effective work from the Essential Theatre cast, along with some awkward moments of over-acting. At times the actors made up in passionate delivery for what they were not given in richness of dialogue.

For those interested in the themes of this fledgling play or intrigued by watching a work in progress, it's a reasonably rewarding experience to catch this production of Rhythm Darlings. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
Yikes! by Dedalus
You're making me REALLY sorry I had to back out on "Blood Knot" Wednesday night. That being said (and probably for that reason), I think I liked "Jim Crow" more than you. But, I'd like your opinion on a structural detail -- as much as I liked the prologue, it did provide a bit of a disconnect with the rest of the play. I thought that is a slight tweak making the waitress actually be Peggy and the Sideman be Vi, it would have made better continuity, AND given Vi and Peggy a little more dimension. Thoughts?

-- Brad
Strip! by uppermiddlebrow
Brad, I share your view that the first scene and the main play needed clearer connection. That the same actors play similar but not identical characters needs resolution. The concept of the girl jazz player in the first scene and the dilemmas posed by her gender could use lots of development. Audience members could be pretty mystified by the whole thing if they have not pre-read the blurbs about jazz as a man's world. But some of us probably enjoyed the cute striptease regardless!

It was partly the disconnect between the two parts that made me think "written for a TV series." But having never attempted to write a play or TV script, I'm reluctant to offer much more reaction on structure.
Re: MSM Reviews by Dedalus
Either Curt Holman or the AJC made the off-hand comment that the prologue was set "a generation" earlier than the main section (probably based on the faded poster in the dressing room). Yet I remember distinct references to WWII in the prologue. Is that my middle-age memory acting up? Did you get the impression we were looking at two distinct time periods? If that comment is correct, I'm not sure if that bespeaks lack of attention on my part or lack of attention to detail on the playwright's.


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