Washington Performing Arts brought the 1930s the 40s supper club era back to life with “A Night at Café Society,” recently presented at Bethesda Blues and Jazz. On the menu were an array of talented artists setting the tone for a night of entertainment reminiscent of an era of early integrated clubs in New York. This production was co-curated by Karen Chilton and Murray Horwitz and headed by Eric E. Richardson, supervising producer at Washington Performing Arts. The team recreated a setting like what audiences enjoyed in Greenwich Village or the Upper East Side, where entertainers of all races brought joy to audiences of all races.
“A Night at Café Society” was Washington Performing Arts’ second production taking audiences into the world of Hazel Scott, a phenomenal jazz and classical pianist, singer and activist. She used her platform as an entertainer to advocate for equal justice. Scott was also in the limelight with her marriage to Harlem Baptist minister and U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
“We want people to think of Hazel Scott when they think of the women of that era who stood up,” Richardson said. “People instantly think of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, or Josephine Baker. Hazel stands right there with them, but she’s never given the credit that she’s due.”
Let the Show Begin
The right tone at Bethesda Blues and Jazz was established with comedian and MC Mark Gregory. When asked to host “A Night at Café Society, Gregory did his research.
“It was an honor, and I had a good time. When I saw a video of Scott playing two pianos at once, that was amazing,” said Gregory, nephew of legendary comedian and activist Dick Gregory. “These people would not have been in this room if it were not for arts and entertainment. That’s what brought us together then and now.”
Coming to the stage was one outstanding talent after another, each one delivering their specialized brand of entertainment. Music director/drummer Chuck Redd led the house band. With Redd were pianist Warren Wolf, bass player Blake Meister, and tenor saxophonist Lyle Link.
Opening the show with a solo piano number was pianist, composer, vocalist, arranger, producer, conductor, and arts educator Damien Sneed. Justin Trawick, a versatile guitarist and vocalist, wearing one of the best-looking hats ever, was a delightful crooner. Trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles played cool jazz sounds for the receptive audience. Anthony “Tony” Walker, another fantastic pianist, also delivered smooth sounds. He is also the music director for Washington Performing Arts Men, Women, and Children of the Gospel Choirs.
What would a club show be without some dancing? That was supplied by tap dancer and actor Baakari Wilder. The smooth, stylish dancer brought thrills to the audience that went back to his Broadway role in the tap musical “Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk.” Wilder spoke about his approach for “Café Society.”
“From a theatrical level, I’ve been fortunate to have studied with those pioneers who are no longer here,” said Wilder, a DC-area native, local college professor, and tap instructor in suburban Maryland and Virginia.
Ladies Take the Stage
Female vocalists also made their mark during “Café Society.” Nova Y. Payton, one of the top musical theater singer-actors in the metro DC area, sang a stunning rendition of “Strange Fruit.” The familiar song is primarily associated with Billie Holiday, but Payton’s arrangement put her multi-octave range on full display.
“It was a Joseph Joubert arrangement from “3 Mo’ Divas, a show I did in 2008,” Payton said. “He put the song together like an aria, which he called a lament.”
Wrapping up the evening was a powerful vocalist, keyboardist, and composer, Sheléa, who has performed with industry legends Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, and David Foster. Opening with the songs “Misty” and “Night and Day,” Sheléa’s voice wowed the audience and kept the theme of the evening in the right place. Things got a little off-track when she asked for audience suggestions. Moving back to where she felt more comfortable, the end of her set ended with an Aretha Franklin tribute.
All-in-all, the audience had a good time reliving the days of a bygone era. The enthusiastic buzz as people left Bethesda Blues and Jazz was about wanting to see the next event that honors the Hazel Scott era.
Learn more about performances at Washington Performing Arts at https://www.washingtonperformingarts.org.