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Black Theatre Troupe's 'Storyville' is about jazz. But the show, and theater, is also about activism

Phoenix’s Black Theatre Troupe is wrapping up its 53rd season with a revival of “Storyville,” a musical about a pivotal moment in jazz history, set in the brothels of 1917 New Orleans. The show runs through Sunday, April 7.

The Show sat down with the troupe’s executive director, David Hemphill, who’s been with the company for over 30 years. 

Interview highlights

DAVID HEMPHILL: What attracted me to the company was its, its roots in activism plays. It acted as a mirror to what was going on in society in terms of racial injustice and inequality and et cetera. Black theater in general. At that time, Black arts, the Black arts movement that was one of the main tenants was to serve as a mirror to reflect what was going on in society and help to change it.

SAM DINGMAN: Politics and art do not always play well together.

HEMPHILL: They don't, but that's one of the great things about arts of a particular culture, be it African American, be it Native American and et cetera. The arts within those contexts are always easy to be based in activism. They're always a very vibrant tool in terms of showing the pros and the cons of that culture. That's what makes it very interesting.

DINGMAN: I think, I think that's actually really perfect segue to talking about "Storyville" because one of the things that I responded to the most in the performance that I just saw is this idea that there are sort of two competing visions of what jazz is. There's Butch's vision and there's Sam's vision.

HEMPHILL: Yes. Butch is new. He wants the pleasure of jazz for the pleasure of jazz. Whereas Sam, it's not for the sake of being creative or et cetera, but the sake of being a a backdrop, that's what makes it all kind of palatable, so to say. You know, there's a little happy, there's a little, a good soundscape to accompany, you know, all of that.

DINGMAN: So the other thing I'm really interested in about this play in particular is the collaboration between Mildred Kayden and Ed Bullens. Ed Bullins, if I'm not mistaken, was a major figure in the Black arts movement.

HEMPHILL: Yes, the use of theater and the use of, of these particular stories to advance the role of the culture and to make new inroads and et cetera. Ed Bullins was a, was the, a great proponent of that.

DINGMAN: That's very interesting to me in, in the reading that I've done about this. I know Ed Bullins at one time was very dogmatic about this idea that Black art should be for Black audiences.

HEMPHILL: Right. And told by Black writers, by Black directors and et cetera. He was very, very adamant about that. But that's one of the emerging facts about the Black arts movement. It eventually did morph into a different style of writing into a different style of creating because of progress. After a while, it didn't make sense to have plays that, like they used to say on the Saturday night shows, Kill Whitey, it didn't, it didn't make sense. Not, not that it didn't make sense. It didn't have as much impact, those type of plays because they had accomplished what they set out to accomplish, an enlightenment. Holding up a mirror.

DINGMAN: We see that broad storyline reflected actually in "Storyville," which is this idea of like the art achieves its end and then it is forced to transform if it was to sustain. And what happens in the play is that this incredible form of music attracts the attention of this French baron guy who comes to town and ends up wanting to take the artists from "Storyville" back to France with him. And all of a sudden jazz becomes international.

HEMPHILL: Yeah. And even one of the characters in the play. The Fifi. Fifi is loosely based of Josephine Baker. The artists like Fifi were very, very popular in Europe, were very, very popular with the larger white audiences.

DINGMAN: And of course, there is a little bit of a tragedy in that trajectory, too, because in order for the music to go international and attract a larger fan base, "Storyville" itself has to lose its foundational performers, the artists who created the scene.

HEMPHILL: Yeah, it has to lose that part in order to progress. The danger in that is the part that the baron sees, the, the feeling that he gets and the, the essence that he sees and he wants to take is, is, loses a good bit of its value in the translation, so we shall say, if you know what I mean.

DINGMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. He's, he's interested in an energy. He has no real understanding of the music.

HEMPHILL: No, no, not real understanding of the music. But he knows the the feeling that that music can create, and he knows that with that soundscape, you can put certain stories to that soundscape, you can put certain feelings within that soundscape. So it's that can be dangerous.

DINGMAN: And then you can sell that feeling. Yeah. So the other thing that's interesting to me about Ed Bullins' collaborating with Mildred Kayden on this project is that this is as we've discussed a story about jazz, and jazz is one of the quintessential Black art forms.

HEMPHILL: Yes, it is the America's gift to the world developed by Black people.

DINGMAN: And yet here in this project, Ed Bullins, who for a long time did feel very strongly about Black artists making Black art for Black audiences, had a Jewish woman, a white woman write the jazz music for this story about jazz.

HEMPHILL: And I think that, that that shows the power of, of jazz as well as the writers that came through the Black arts movement. But you know, that can be easily said about the Jewish experience and the Black experience. Both of those experiences, both of those cultures have internalized oppression and internalized unhappy things and, and that sort of thing. That's why it worked well.

DINGMAN: Yes. And, and there is such a strong element, I think, in both Jewish and in Black culture of what is the right way to be Jewish. What is the right way to be Black?

HEMPHILL: That's right. You hit that right on the head. It is very, it is very, very, that is a very, very important tenet. There's very distinct feelings on, on both of those subjects, on how to be.

DINGMAN: Yeah. I know that that Black ownership of the culture is always in peril.

HEMPHILL: Sure, it is. Appropriation.

DINGMAN: Yes. But do you think it is a particularly perilous moment now?

HEMPHILL: Well, thinking it bad to teach about slavery in schools. Thinking it bad to teach organizations how they should respect and, and embrace diversity and teach about insensitivities. If you think about all those things, it's a perilous time. It is a very, very, very, very perilous time. More the reason that organizations like ours, we have to counter some of the things that are being shown in society, just like we did the first year that we were in existence, in existence. We have to show the reality and show the truth of the situation. All of the things that we used our art to open those doors and, and, and, and illuminate all of those things. Now, they're, they're trying to, trying to not show that they're important anymore. It's a spooky time. I don't want to get political but you know, it is.

DINGMAN: But that is, that's what you do here.

HEMPHILL: It's a spooky time.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Sam was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.