Blues in the light

The year is 1938, the place is a Chicago residence hotel — and the music’s a-howl on the twilight breeze. And that’s just a milli-splinter of the picture.

UNCA’s Black History Month celebration has already brought us poetry readings, films, discussions, dances, storytelling, music and drum circles — but there’s even more to come. The celebrated poet Nikki Giovanni is delivering the celebration’s keynote address. And the series closes with a star-studded, special performance of the Tony-nominated musical Blues in the Night (featuring the above-mentioned hotel, howls, et al.), presented by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.

Among the 27 musical numbers in Blues In The Night are tunes by Bessie Smith, Benny Goodman and Chick Webb, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Alberta Hunter, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, among many others. The company performs such classic titles as “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” “Rough and Ready Man,” “Kitchen Man” and “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues.” Chicago native Stanley White sings Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues” with considerable strut and swagger. The show also features Norissa Pearson, a Missouri native who’s appeared in Showboat and Porgy And Bess, among other productions; Shirley Tripp, late of the Broadway revival of Dreamgirls; and Liz Mikel — a frequent performer with the Dallas Repertory Theatre.

Blues In The Night was conceived and originally directed by Sheldon Epps in 1983.

“Blues is music about survival and coping with life’s trials and tribulations with humor and strength,” Epps told the La Costa Blade-Citizen. “That’s what makes it so timeless in its appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds. The blues speaks to our essence.” Epps has become both a fan and student of the blues in the nearly two decades since Blues In The Night brought its torchy repertoire of American blues, jazz and pop favorites to Broadway.

“The songs were chosen specifically to celebrate a great period and style of American music, and to explore the influence and roots of the jazz idiom as it grew from the blues,” Epps further explained. Original vocal arrangements and musical direction were done by Chapman Roberts; orchestrations and additional vocal arrangements came courtesy of Sy Johnson. The Arkansas Rep production is directed by Brad Mooy, with choreography by Ron Hutchins. Musical Director Michael Heavner leads a versatile band composed of trumpet, sax, bass and drums.

Since emerging from the Blacks Arts movement of the late ’60s, Nikki Giovanni has done nothing if not prove herself a champion of real family values. Her book of childrens’ poetry, Spin A Soft Black Song (Hill and Wang, 1971), is insightful from all angles — written for, to and from the perspective of children. In the simple events she describes, the poet finds the truth, every time.

Giovanni edited 1996’s multicultural anthology, Grand Mothers (Henry Holt Publishing), which offered “poems, reminiscences and short stories about the keepers of our traditions”; in her book Those Who Ride The Night Winds (Morrow, 1983), she honors her own kin, in works like “Hands: For Mothers’ Day.” One of Giovanni’s longer poems has recently been published as an illustrated children’s book, titled Knoxville, TN (Scholastic, 1994).

This much-beloved author’s nearly 20 books have sold more than 100,000 copies — Blues: For All The Changes (Morrow, 1999) was the first book of poetry ever to make the Los Angeles Times Best Seller List — and her exploration of the African-American experience has continues undiminished. Her 1978 work, Cotton Candy On A Rainy Day (Morrow), is a stark, honest but always hopeful look at the challenges, victories and defeats of daily life and love. In another vein, she has never ceased to expose what she considers our national shame — racism. Racism 101 (Morrow, 1994) surveys the situations of Americans on every side of the issue.

In person, Giovanni focuses on the positive, on the individual — the power one has to make a difference in oneself, and thus, in the lives of others. As she recently told an audience at MIT: “Do something with your life! You will find that what you have coveted is not worth coveting. There is a limit to what material things can do.”

In her biography, Giovanni paints herself as an ordinary person who just wants to move the world a little: “I am a Black American poet. I am a daughter, a mother, a professor of English. I like grilled rack of lamb and boiled corn on the cob. I like my mother, my sister, my son, and my dogs. I will drink any hot, black liquid that someone will call coffee. I have no need to control anyone and will not be controlled. I believe that if I keep examining my life and what I think and feel, I will have added one teeny, tiny bit of truth to this planet I call home.”

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