Sunday, 5 June 2016

THE TOTAL BENT at the Public Theatre

     What to say about this enjoyable, brilliantly performed, but not always coherent musical that soars when it sings? Basically it is about the clash of generations of Black preacher-performers in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Yes the boycotts, riots and police brutality are going on outside the church and recording studio. Joy Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall), represents the older generation. He's a former blues singer turned preacher who is moving from church to television studio. Joe has been wild with women and with money, but he preaches that Christ forgives all sins, so he, to paraphrase Faulkner, tries to endure and prevail. His message is that Blacks should be good and unthreatening. He's against Martin Luther King and his followers. Joy Roy believes that one survives by making nice with white folk. After all, how many poor Blacks had television sets in Alabama in 1965? Joe Roy's power comes from his gospel songs, which are ghost written by his more talented son, Martin (the brilliant Ato Blankson-Wood).  Joy Roy depends on Martin but is also frightened of him. Their rivalry is maintained by Byron, a British record producer who is an aficionado of old blues and particularly of Joe Roy's early work. To this middle-aged British blues fan, Black music is "authenticity." Joe tries to stop Joy Roy from producing Martin's work. Nonetheless, Martin become a star in England, though the American rock press calls him an Uncle Tom. What is "authentic" music? Martin's mocks the religion his father sells.  It is also very much of its time and Martin, Black, anger and queer, represents the present and the future. I can tell you that much but dare anyone to figure out the last ten minutes of the show.
      THE TOTAL BENT is well worth seeing for its dynamic music (Stew and Heidi Rodewald), the star-making performance of Ato Blankson--Wood, who is filled to the brim with talent, and the great band. Everyone in this all-male cast is excellent. The production (Joanna Settle) is  more staged concert than full production, which doesn't help the muddle of the ending. Stew's attempt at rhymed dialogue and his lyrics are best when they are taking a humorous view toward a very serious topic. Having just seen, SHUFFLE ALONG, I was interested in this take on Black culture and politics.
THE TOTAL BENT. Public Theatre. June 4, 2016.

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