Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' on the Bus

There is a groove going on uptown at the Harlem School of the Arts; there is rhythm and there is blues, there is soul and there is funk, heck, a couple of times there is even some good old-fashioned musical theater. Buy a ticket and get your booty on the D train. Nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in its original 1971 Broadway production, Ain�t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, the Classical Theater of Harlem tells us, paved the way for the choreopoem, spoken word, and rap music. Legendary impresario Melvin Van Peebles has concocted a great bluesy, jazzy, and above all, poetic paean to a specific time and a specific place�most specifically black urban neighborhoods of the early 1970s.

Ain�t Supposed to Die a Natural Death is about the comings-and-goings of this neighborhood, a pointillist portrait of a community using no drama save its residents� daily lives, no antagonist save a general malaise called "the man." In a series of musical monologues, the residents sing their fears, frustrations, criminations, recriminations, and regrets�all blending together into a unified cry of pain.

(l to r) Carmen Barika and Ty Jones in Ain't Supposed to Die A Natural Death Photo Credit:Carol Rosegg
Photo Credit:Carol Rosegg

But that is not to say it is not any fun.

In the opening scene of the show, Sunshine (the ebullient D. Rubin Green) walks onstage appearing mighty annoyed as he watches something go by, looks toward the audience, and cries "It just don�t make no sense how these corns are hurtin� me!" Sunshine gets on the bus and is joined in rapid succession by his neighbors, running and winding across the stage in a snaky conga line; an exciting beginning, and also the best impersonation of careening public transport this reviewer has ever seen.

That is only one of several songs, of course, and one of several characters; there is a pimp and his prostitutes, a country boy-turned Nation of Islam proponent, a drag queen and an angry lesbian, a convict on Death Row, a sad, fat man, and more. Each character has a song, each character has a moment, and almost all of it is arresting.

(l-r) Rashaad Ernesto Green and J. Kyle Manzay in Ain't Supposed to Die A Natural Death
Photo Credit:Carol Rosegg

There are highlights�the aforementioned Sunshine; the lesbian, Dyke (Tracy Jack) who sings a plaintive song to her unseen lover, pleading that she go to a dance with her; The Con (J. Kyle Manzay), singing to lover, Lilli, the girl he murdered; the crooked Black Cop, gleefully abusing a prostitute on his beat. Perhaps the loudest accolades should go to set designer Troy Hourie, whose urban sprawl of a set is as bleak as the characters' lives.

Some may be put off by the show; as a poem, like Ntozake Shange's Obie award-winning play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow is Enuf, much of what is spoken is often incomprehensible, but as a poem, its chief concern is not content, but tone; to put it more plainly (and to paraphrase Roger Ebert), it is not what it is about, but how it is about it. Like Ain�t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Mr. Van Peebles� landmark Sweet Sweetback�s Badasss Song (famously "rated X by an all-white jury") is another endeavor remembered more for its attitude than the intricacies of its plot.

The complaints are few, but the biggest is that in the relatively small theater space of the Harlem School of the Arts, director Alfred Preisser chose to have his actors wear microphones. This amounts to gross overamplification, giving the performances a tinny, pre-recorded quality, jarring at 20 feet away. When Wino�s (Ralph Carter) microphone cut out during his performance, the natural sound of his voice energized his song�until the microphone came back on.

Perhaps that is quibbling. Even with the microphones, the alchemy is still there, the music (under the direction of William "Spaceman" Patterson) still jives, and the actors just do their thing.

Oh, yeah.

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