Last night I saw Will Manus's play Blues for Central Avenue, which celebrates Los Angeles's famous Central Avenue after World War II, at Write Act Repertory Theater, 6128 Yucca Ave, Hollywood. During the 1930s and early 1940s Los Angeles was a Jim Crow town, with severe housing segration written into housing convenants all over the city and with blacks confined to the Southcentral ghetto. African-Americans created on Central Avenue the hottest night life in Los Angeles with jazz clubs, restaurants, hotels that regularly hosted Duke Ellington, Count Basie, T-Bone Walker, and Lionel Hampton as well as birthed the next generation of jazz greats like Charlie Mingus. By the late 1930s and 1940s whites including Hollywood elite would go to the Central Avenue clubs just as some whites in 1920s New York went uptown to the Harlem clubs. The most original music out of Los Angeles has for decades come from Southcentral.
The playwright Willard Manus in the notes said he learned about Central Avenue listening to Johnny Otis's radio show in the early 1980s where Otis, himself a wonderful musician, had on his radio program "such Central Avenue stalwarts as artist Cal Bailey, sax player Buddy Collete, trumpeter Dootsie Williams, vocalist Caroline Harlson, and dancer Clarence 'Frenchy' Laundry talk about their experience" on Central Avenue. The play's director Ken Cosby also reminesces in the notes that after he graduated high school in 1989 he jammed with his idol Jimmy Knepper, who had been Charlie Mingus' s trombonist. The notes also has reproduction wonderful paintings by Rich Hyman of musicians playing in Central Avenue. African-American artists in Los Angeles through this play are paying homage to their past and to our past.
The play is not caught up nostalgia for the past but focuses on the crucial turning point for Central Avenue right after World War II. Then black servicemen returned to Central Avenue like the play's hero Lowell Swift, a wounded veteran, returns with the dream of founding a recording company to record new Central Avenue singers. Black woman like the heroine Roberta Youngblood had war jobs making good money but were laid off as she complains to Lowell so the jobs could go to returning veterans. Zoot suits are still in fashion, as the hero has to shed his army clothes for a zoot suit. Roberta enters the singing contest at Club Alabam and wows the audience, leading to Lowell making her first record as these characters rush for their dreams in post-war Los Angeles. Wallace Demaaria acts wonderfully as Lowell Swift showing his charm, his dreams, his persuasiveness, his love for Roberta, and his frustration that his record company has no distribution so he can't pay his singer anything. A Hollywood producer and his entourage come to the club, hear Roberta, and the producer convince her to leave Central Avenue to go uptown to be in the movies, leaving Lowell devasted.
The play's bittersweet climax is when one character rushes in saying the courts outlawed Jim Crow housing convenants allowing blacks for the first time the right to buy or rent any property anywhere in Southern California. The play's characters celebrate this great victory, now having even bigger dreams of going to live in rich white neighborhoods. Yet this moment of triumph is bittersweet as Lowell Swift says in a great monologue to the audience. In Central Avenue and Southcentral blacks had built their own clubs, hotels, restaurants, nightlife, newspapers, and insurance companies, but by 1955 Central Avenue would end as blacks moved out over the city. The whole nightlife scene would vanish. The play celebrates the Last Hurrah for Central Avenue in the last 1940s and early 1950s and illuminates why and how the Black Broadway of Los Angeles ended.
Blues for Central Avenue
Write Act Repertory Theater
6128 Yucca, Hollywood, 323-469-3113
Run through March 7.