Many people are familiar with the Harlem Renaissance, and possibly even the U Street Historic District in Washington D.C., but far fewer — even native Angelenos — know about Central Avenue: the artistic, intellectual, and cultural heart of African-American Los Angeles from the 1920s through the mid-1950s. The crown jewel of this district packed with jazz clubs was the Dunbar Hotel, evocatively brought to life by Levy Lee Simon in his epic play that spans over 70 years and features nearly 20 actors. The bulk of the story, however, takes place from 1931 to 1943, grouped into four vignettes that explore both the black celebrities who frequented the hotel and the working-class African Americans who kept it running.
After the stock market crash of 1929, the Hotel Somerville is sold by its creator John Somerville (Doug Jewell) to entrepreneur Lucius Lomax (Dwain A. Perry). Lomax renames it in honor of the late black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (Julio Hanson), who appears as a ghost throughout, commenting on the action. A religious Jamaican immigrant, Somerville initially opposes Lomax and prizefighter Jack Johnson’s (Kem Saunders) plans to open a nightclub in the hotel, but Somerville is soon swayed by W.E.B. DuBois (Tommy Hicks), another guest there. Also in residence are black luminaries Duke Ellington (Eddie Goines), Paul Robeson (Jah Shams), Lena Horne (Tiffany Coty) and Ethel Waters (Elizabeth June), none of whom are allowed to stay in the white hotels they perform in at the time.
Interwoven with these celebrities’ storylines are those of the hotel employees, as well as those of local writers, journalists, activists, and ministers who frequent this hub of black culture. The piece is truly an ensemble effort, helmed by Ben Guillory, who effectively employs period music and dynamic blocking to evoke the ambience of a place with so many moving parts and storylines. While the action lacks a traditional dramatic build, each of the four vignettes features flashpoints of heated conflict and sobering truths about the racist realities outside the protective walls of the hotel, ranging from discriminatory hiring practices in Hollywood to debate surrounding black enlistment in World War II to the Zoot Suit Riots.
Micheal D. Ricks’ multilayered set and lighting design make creative use of every corner of the modestly-sized space. And the fantastic ensemble is dressed to the nines in Naila Aladdin Sanders’ stylish period costumes. Though the final scene abruptly shifts tone (and time period) in a somewhat didactic manner, all in all, the play provides an entertaining and informative evening, bringing to life a rich history we could all stand to learn more about.
The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Downtown L.A.; through December 21. (866) 811-4111, www.thelatc.org
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