This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine . . . Everywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine . . .
The words to the old gospel song bubbled up from the overture to the Everyman Street Theater Company's outdoor production of "The New Cotton Club Revue." And the cast and crew of 50 talented young Washingtonians let that bright light shine Saturday for several hundred persons between the East and West wings of the National Gallery of Art.
The National Gallery appearance was the troupe's final weekend show in a series that has seen the group perform all over the metropolitan area this month. From Laurel to 14th and T streets NW, the company has drawn appreciative audiences.
"Isn't it nice to see all these kids doing something so constructive?" Helen Armistead remarked to her friends as they perched on a concrete wall at the gallery, waiting for the performance to start. Behind them, cast and chorus ran through vocal warm-ups and a dancer sat cross-legged before one of the mirrored pyramids in the plaza, hurriedly applying her makeup.
"We have 91 kids working on the show this year," said producer Jewell Robinson Shepperd, executive director of Workshops for Careers in the Arts, which has presented outdoor theater productions in Washington for 12 summers. "The fact that we could hire 50 performers is real important," Shepperd said. Troupe members, most of whom come from Howard University and the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, are all paid for the summer's work, which involved five weeks of all-day rehearsals, seven days a week, and three weeks of outdoor performances at 20 locations, Shepperd said.
"It's an adjustment, working outside," said actress Colette "Coco" Hill, in her last year of theater studies at Howard. "It was rough dealing with all the different concretes -- my shoes had 20 holes in them after the first show."
The show, a star-is-born fantasy based on the history of Harlem's legendary Cotton Club, is a collage of black musical styles, incorporating jazz, gospel, blues and basic Broadway schmaltz. The young cast is lively and professional, notably Kathy Smith as inge'nue Faye Zalee, and David Crawford as Dave, who sings a wonderfully upbeat "That's the Way You Gotta Treat a Girl." Rita Henderson, as a blind woman, stops the show several times with her bluesy belting and deft comic punctuations. Several chorus members distinguish themselves with outstanding solos.
Direction and choreography by Workshops' co-founder Mike Malone are precise and lively, and the large ensemble stays together remarkably well. The simple and versatile sets, designed by Ron Truitt, effectively suggest the streets of Harlem and the backstage life of its Cotton Club.
Curious passers-by paused and stayed, and the audience involved itself readily, shouting encouragement, dancing and clapping along with the tight jazz ensemble. Four National Gallery security guards rocked back and forth, smiling and tapping their feet. A passing ERA march failed to distract the audience from the voices on stage.
"They sure have a lot of pizazz," enthused Jeffrey Sorg, a songwriter visiting from Jersey City. "My wife and sister are in the Rodin exhibit. I told them to go on ahead. I'm a sap for this sort of thing."
"That's my son," whispered Dan Hooks, a construction worker from Southeast Washington, nudging the woman standing next to him. "He always was musical -- been singing and dancing since he's 7, 8 years old," Hooks said proudly. His son Randy played Daddy Joe, grandfather of the show's heroine.
After a standing ovation, the crowd quickly dissolved and the sets melted into a waiting truck. Clustered in a corner, the cast dressed and hugged, looking anxiously to make sure the bus waited for them. "After this I'm going to cool out for a little while," said Kevin Crawford, 15, one of a trio of charismatic and energetic dancing shoeshine boys. "It keeps me busy and out of trouble," he laughed.
The Everyman group plays three more days in Washington -- 6:30 p.m. today at Southeast House; noon tomorrow at Capital Children's Museum; and Wednesday at noon at Waterside Mall and at 6:30 at Fort Chaplin Apartments. Then the players will shine the light in Stamford, Conn., and at the finale of the annual Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Theater Festival in New York City.