"It's fickle age . . . with flirtation the rage," sings Ayl Mack, in white shirt, red tie, suspenders and spats, looking as though he just stepped out of a Harlem nightclub of the 1920s.
On the makeshift stage of the National Portrait Gallery's lofty Great Hall, it is the age of the Harlem Renaissance and Mack -- accompanied by pianist John McMahon -- captures its spirit nicely in a fast-paced, short (30-40 minutes) program of songs and poetry called "Black and Blue."
The program, which runs today only at 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. for free, is one in the Gallery's occasional series of programs, "Portraits in Motion." The programs focus on the subjects of various portraits in the museum. "Black and Blue" begins a series of four different Saturday programs highlighting black orators and artists in recognition of Black History Month.
In "Black and Blue," Mack zips through some of the best of the infectiously foot-tapping, rhythmic songs of Fats Waller, like "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "The Joint is Jumpin," with a slow and exquisite rendition of "Black and Blue" the high point of his performance.
The songs are interspersed with the poetry of Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Claude McKay, which Mack acts out more than he recites, even chanting one of them. For the occasion, the Gallery's portraits of Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson are displayed as the backdrop.
Mack, who was the singing narrator of the Olney Theater's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" compiled the material for "Black and Blue" and includes brief descriptions of some of the Harlem Renaissance artists.
The only problem with the program is the Great Hall's unfortunate accoustics which make Mack's words sometimes difficult to understand, what with all the echo. But your ears get acclimated.
It's a fun program, and the poetry evokes both pain and happiness. Almost anything that's carefully done on black history is important -- for everybody -- but this is a special find because one leaves feeling not so much the weighty depression of these black artists' problem-ridden past but more the range of these artists' creativity and cleverness.
All the programs are free. Feb. 9 is "Robeson in Song and Memory," Feb. 23 is "The Bojangles Legacy," and March 1 is "I'm Just Another Soldier" (the story of Harriet Tubman). All are at 1:30 and 3 p.m. on those days at the Gallery.