July 31--It takes a lot of attitude to play an iconic musician like blues singer Mabel Louise "Big Maybelle" Smith.
And Lillias White, an award-winning veteran of the National Black Theatre Festival, is the perfect person to take on the role of the brassy, lusty singer in "Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues."
The play, written and directed by Paul Levine, features 20 songs from Maybelle's repertoire, which included such tunes as "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" -- performed two years before Jerry Lee Lewis made it a mainstream hit -- and "Candy," which remade Dinah Shore's wholesome rendition into something much more sexy and playful.
The songs are woven together to tell the story of Maybelle's life from her childhood as a sharecropper's daughter in Tennessee singing gospel music to her professional career, which took off in the 1930s and 1940s on the "chitlin circuit." With her natural talent, she is able to make her own way despite the racism she faces.
Along the way, she frequently falls victim to her appetites for food, men, and drugs. Her zest for life is all that keeps her going through the heartbreak. After a rollicking opening rendition of "Whole Lotta Shakin'," we settle into the story of her life, as she sits in a psychiatric hospital, trying to make sense of it all.
John Astin, best known for his role as Gomez Addams in the classic TV show "The Addams Family," plays her psychiatrist, an understanding, understated soul who prods her gently with questions and tries to empathize, even sharing his story of dealing with racism as a Jewish child. At first she is defiant and sarcastic, but she has a heck of a story to tell.
Multimedia elements, including black and white photos and video, are splashed on the walls behind the stage. White interacts with a talented band led by music director Michael Mitchell. Drummer Abdullah Rahman does double duty, sliding from behind the drum set to play Sully, a charming scoundrel in stylish duds who toys with Maybelle's affections. Also noteworthy is Tennille Foust, an assistant professor at Bennett College, who plays Maybelle's hissably wicked romantic rival.
The musical numbers are terrific, the stage work is creative, and the emotionally resonant story ties it all together into a cohesive narrative. It brings Big Maybelle's story to life, and makes the audience want to seek out her music catalog.
(c)2013 Winston-Salem Journal (Winston Salem, N.C.)
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