The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Robey Theatre Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center
Through Dec. 21
Levy Lee Simon’s play celebrates the life and times of The Dunbar Hotel, on Los Angeles’s Central Avenue. As a luxury hotel serving the African-American community at a time when poverty and discrimination made most black-oriented hotels shabby and lacking in even basic amenities, it soon became a revered institution hosting black celebrities, and offering a venue for black musicians, jazz-men and performers, including Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong — many of them appearing as characters in Simon’s play.
(The Dunbar was also celebrated for its cuisine, which featured “Southern fried everything.”)
Simon’s play covers the hotel’s history from 1930 to 2008; the hotel is haunted by the ghost of black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar (Julio Hanson), for whom the hotel was named. He comments on the action, and treats us to a selection of his poems. The piece gets underway with the appearance of John Somerville (Doug Jewell), who built the hotel, but was forced to sell it after the 1929 market crash. Even though he’s no longer the owner, Somerville is indignant that the new management features jazz concerts and a cabaret, which he feels are demeaning to the Negro community. Fortunately for the hotel and its future history, he’s opposed by W.E.B. Dubois (Tommy Hicks), who delivers a ringing endorsement of the value of music, and the opposition fails.
As the play goes on, we’re introduced to the hotel’s famous patrons, including Paul Robeson (Jah Shams), Jack Johnson (Kem Saunders), and Joe Louis (Eddie Goines), and the performers who appeared there: Duke Ellington (Goines) and the dueling divas, Ethel Waters (Elizabeth June) and Lena Horne (Tiffany Coty). Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, whom some called the King of Central Avenue, is represented by a brief recorded excerpt featuring his appearances on the Jack Benny radio show. In addition to the live scenes, there are also brief photo montages of the concurrent events in the larger world, including Pearl Harbor and the fate of Blacks in World War II, and the race riots of the 1940s.
While one respects the playwright’s good intentions, he has cast his net so wide that his play is often reduced to narrative rather than drama, with so many characters coming and going (there are 20 actors in the cast, many playing multiple roles) that many of them aren’t given enough space and time to develop their characters. When the action is slowed down enough to allow relations to develop, the piece comes to life, as in the musical battle between Waters and Horne, which provides the finale of Act 1; the two singers compete to out-do each other in a rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” But all too often, the piece seems more like a historical pageant than a play.
For director Ben Guillory, the production is clearly a labor of love, and he has cast it well. But due to the number or characters milling around, and a certain awkwardness in the use of the space, there is clumsiness in the execution. There are good performances by Cydney Warren Davis as an activist newspaper editor; by Sammie Wayne IV as a truculent screenwriter at Warner Brothers who lost his job when the management conducted a purge of black and brown faces on the lot; by Rhonda Stubbins White, Vanja Renee, and Melvin Ishmael Johnson as hotel employees; by Ashlee Olivia and Kyle Connor McDuffie as a pair of Louisiana emigres who are subjected to violence in a race riot; and by Jovin Adepo as a local minister.
What the production most needed was some comprehensive program notes that would have supplied necessary information without the need for endless expository dialogue.
The Robey Theatre Company at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; (check with theater for holiday schedule); through Dec. 21. (866) 811-4111, http://www.thelatc.org.