LETTERS TO EDITOR
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by Laura Hitchcock
The dark roots of the black music scene in 1940s Los Angeles are brutally exposed in the opening moments of Central Avenue when a cop viciously harasses a black man simply for standing on that street after curfew. A beating is forestalled by a young white musician who claims his father works in the Mayor's office. It's a lie. The truth is that the aspiring musician Eddie recognizes the black man as the legendary Smokin' Sam Washington, one of the great musical artists of the period. Through Eddie's eyes the audience enters the dual worlds of the exuberant black music scene and the terrified vindictive xenophobia of some elements of the Los Angeles Police Department, then entering the reign of Police Chief William Parker.
Playwright Stephen Sachs has crowded his play with individuals and events, inspired by such historic incidents as the fight of the Colored Musicians Union to merge with the White Musicians Union. At an hour and forty minutes non-stop, the overwhelming passion and color of the era build incrementally to the devastating murder at the climax. Sachs' desire to let every character tell a story results in a rich tapestry but sometimes distracts from a focus on the play's through line.
The playwright surrounds his main characters with an array of strong personalities and uses their monologues and ballads sung by sensuous Maura Gale as counterpoints that make a simultaneous bass accompaniment to the action of the play. Director Shirley Jo Finney displays her usual sensitivity to values and, in this case, finds the moments of passion and the moments when passion is too deep for tears.
The excellent cast includes Chet Grissom, an appealing and vulnerable Eddie, despite an occasional tendency to equate anguish with shouting that distances him from the audience; Jeris Lee Poindexter, who holds the stage effortlessly with a heartfelt low-key depiction of Smokin' Sam Washington; Anthony J. Haney, charismatic, solid and poignant as Walter Curry; Clinton Derricks-Carroll, vivid and exuberant as an unforgettable Moose the Mooche; lissome youthful Damu Quarles in a keenly felt performance as Doc Peterson; William Knight as William Worton, incisive and idealistic as the official who attempts to ameliorate the racism of William Parker, played by Clayton Landey, Officer Burk played by Ryan Michaels and Daryl Gates played by Stephen Marshall, who also portrays Jack Webb and Earl Hoffman. The latter police officers are written as one-dimensional goons. Perhaps that was felt to be necessary to give a picture of the period through the eyes of the black community but it's always a less interesting choice and gives these strong actors nowhere else to go.
Scenic Artist Kerry Jones' murals go beyond the usual requirements of set design and make the Fountain Theatre's tiny stage a gallery without distracting from the play. More than just a play with music, Central Avenue makes the music scene an integral ingredient. In addition to Gale's numbers and her remarkable dancing, musical consultant Ernie Fields, Junior, has arranged and directed a splendiferous assortment of 1940s songs. There are also original artists' recordings by such jazz greats as Charlie Parker and Jelly Roll Morton.
Central Avenue isn't always easy listening but it's a theme that is part of America's heritage and celebrates music that will never die.