Rollin' With Stevens and Stewart | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Rollin' With Stevens and Stewart 

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This breezy 90-minute revue of classic black song, dance, and humor stands apart from bigger and brasher shows like Ain't Misbehavin' and One Mo' Time by virtue of its quirky choice of material. The minimal story line of Rollin' With Stevens and Stewart follows the travels of two 1920s vaudevillians on the T.O.B.A. circuit--officially the Theatre Owners Booking Association, but more popularly known as Tough On Black Asses. The two alternate between "onstage" renditions of vintage material (from such artists as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Bert Williams, Clarence Williams, Duke Ellington, Moms Mabley, and the writing team of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles) with "backstage" vignettes whose anecdotal dialogue is drawn from stories and poems by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. The effect is to contrast the good-time jivin' of Miller and Lyles's crude comedy ("Does you believe in reincremation?" a proto-Amos asks a proto-Andy) and minstrel-showy songs like Clarence Williams's "Ugly Chile" with the wry and witty meditations on racism (including black self-hate) found in Brooks's "Lincoln West" (about an ugly child who finds perverse pride in being described as "pure negro" by a white bigot) and in Hughes's "Banquet in Honor," in which an aged African American intellectual berates a black bourgeois audience for failing to support young black talent. Tenor Ronald "Smokey" Stevens and baritone Jaye Stewart make a terrific team, Stevens's lanky languor and graceful tap dancing nicely complementing Stewart's rough-edged clowning. The result is a show that cleverly manages to be diverting and thought-provoking at once. At Wisdom Bridge, through July 23. Wednesdays-Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 5 and 8:30 PM; Sundays, 3 and 7:30 PM; Tuesday, July 23, 8 PM (benefit performance for Wisdom Bridge's Outreach Program, followed by a reception). July 23 benefit $30-$100; other shows $20.50-$26.50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.

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