Audience members at the next Yale School of Drama show will embark on a jazzy and boisterous journey through the past that raises questions about racial and artistic identity.
“Jelly’s Last Jam,” a Tony Award-winning musical by George Wolfe and Susan Birkenhead that opened on Broadway in 1992, is the third production in the school’s 2008-’09 season. The show, which will run from Feb. 13 to 18, also serves as the thesis project of director Patricia McGregor DRA ’09, the artistic director of the Yale Cabaret.
The play is as much an examination of the connections between race and culture as it is a rollicking biography of Jelly Roll Morton, the renowned pianist and composer who once made the ostentatious claim that he was the inventor of jazz. Beginning with a Dickensian visit by the mysterious Chimney Man, a supernatural character, on the night of Jelly’s death, it delves deeply into Jelly’s life, using song and dance to depict scenes from Morton’s past and to explore the realities of the African-American experience during the Great Migration, a mass movement of African Americans out of the South from 1916 to 1930. .
McGregor explained that she selected “Jelly’s Last Jam” for its artistic merits and its personal and societal relevance, as it addresses the complex issues of memory, history and the self.
“While I am drawn to and energized by the fantastic music of the piece, I’m equally invested in the content and characters revealed through the rhythms and rhymes,” McGregor said. “As a light-skinned black artist, the ideas of shifting identities and honoring ancestors who have paved your way are particularly resonant for me.”
The play includes songs by Morton himself and Broadway musical arranger Luther Henderson, who was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical Score for the production. Andrew Kelsey DRA ’11, a member of the cast, said the show tried to add some of Morton’s trademark musical fusion — Morton combined elements of ragtime, blues and the African-American spiritual in his style of jazz — into its choreography.
“The step dance serves the purpose of incorporating a rhythmic tradition from the black community with African roots into the show,” said Kelsey, who plays Young Jelly. “It emphasizes where Jelly Roll’s music came from.”
“I’m excited to experience what looks like a smart and original show,” Diana Ofosu ’12 said.
Members of the cast have also shared in the enthusiasm, citing the show’s entertaining musical numbers and interesting plot as reasons for their excitement.
“I feel really lucky that I get to do it, and it’s a ridiculous amount of fun,” said Emily Trask DRA ’11, who plays the role of Jelly’s sister Amede and dances in the chorus. “But it’s also kind of hard work.”
To advertise the show, the School of Drama’s marketing department launched a Facebook group promoting the production and a video blog on YouTube that features interviews with actors and scenes from the show’s rehearsals. This is part of their new effort, which began in October of 2008, to use online media to draw in a younger, targeted audience.
Tickets for all performances have sold out, according to the Yale Repertory Theatre box office. Potential audience members may sign a waiting list at the University Theater one hour prior to the show and will receive unclaimed reservations on a first-come, first-serve basis.