Taking On Jolson’s Blackface


The Abrons Arts Center was looking for a production with local roots when its curators approached actor and director Joshua William Gelb about creating something for this fall season. Gelb, who lives near the Center on the Lower East Side, was drawn to the classic 1927 film “The Jazz Singer” as inspiration for “jazz singer,” which will have its world premiere later this month.

Set on Orchard Street — just a few blocks east of where the Abrons Arts Center is now — “The Jazz Singer” is the story of a young man torn between his dreams of becoming a big-time jazz singer and his immigrant Jewish tradition, where the only singing held in high esteem is cantorial style.

There have been many Jazz Singers other than Al Jolson, who immortalized the role in the film that was the first to use synchronized sound. George Jessel played the role on Broadway in 1925, Danny Thomas in the 1952 film, Jerry Lewis in a 1959 television movie and Neil Diamond in the 1980 film — but Gelb and Nehemiah Luckett, the show’s co-creator, composer and music director, looked mostly to Jolson, who performed in blackface.

Gelb, who is Jewish, and Luckett, who is African-American, are working together for the first time and describe their show as a “jazz-infused theatrical exhumation.” It is a contemporary riff, a spirited and deep conversation, or “interrogation,” that looks back and looks within. And the work takes on a new urgency in the wake of revelations by a number of white Southern politicians that they appeared in blackface years ago, sparking a national conversation.

Although most members of the cast and production team were not familiar with the film and its cultural legacy, they identify with the themes that Gelb and Luckett try to tease out: immigration, assimilation, racial identity, family ties, atonement, community and a Lower East Side that is now more gentrified district than immigrant ghetto.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Gelb says that he first saw “The Jazz Singer” in a film studies class in his high school in Port Washington, L.I., but the imagery has stayed with him for a very long time.

“It’s an indelibly iconic part of film history — it’s both iconic and kind of dangerous, part of a history that the country is somewhat ashamed of,” he says.

“The Jazz Singer” is based on a story by Samson Raphaelson called “The Day of Atonement.” Raphaelson also wrote the play based on his story. The 1927 version of the film includes Jolson’s powerful rendition of “Kol Nidrei.”

Luckett, who has created an original score for piano, saxophone, electronics and vocals, speaks of the “New York-ness of the story. An immigrant family coming to America. What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to fight against who you think you are, who you think you want to be, who your family wants you to be? All of that was in ‘The Jazz Singer.’

“The story, as it moves around and is shining its light on Al Jolson, there are all of these other stories in the shadows. And we’re searching the shadows for some more stories,” Luckett says.

Gelb, who also performs in the show, says they hope to “open up the conversation, to talk about the origins of jazz,” and about how the Jewish and African-American communities experience “The Jazz Singer.”

“We are trying to create something that is a bit challenging and also ultimately a satisfying theatrical experience,” he says.

In creating the show, they did a lot of research and spoke to many scholars. Gelb explains that the use of blackface was a “trope at the time and accepted” — it had been practiced since the 1830s. Now, he says, there’s a “reservoir of toxicity about it. It’s an inherently racist act, an erasure of people in many ways.”

He explains that “building the piece was like a jazz ensemble” and asks, “What does it mean for us to be in a room and listen to each other and try to create something?”

Gelb says that there’s a surprising lack of jazz in the 1927 film, with more ragtime and Tin Pan Alley music.

“The jazziest stuff in the film is Kol Nidrei,” he says, noting that the show’s creative team is very interested in the relationship between liturgical music and jazz.

Trumpeter Alphonso Horne has curated a list of jazz musicians who will join the production, a different one appearing each night and improvising on stage. Additional performers include Christina Pitter and Stanley Mathabane. Video projections, including live video of them, are incorporated.

At Abrons, Gelb, a member of Lincoln Center Directors Lab, previously conceived and directed the reimagining of what may have been America’s first musical, “The Black Crook,” on its 150th anniversary; has also worked on productions at Ars Nova, Joe’s Pub and Edinburgh Fringe; and co-created and directed the Off-Broadway production “A Hunger Artist.” Growing up, he did some cantorial work.

Luckett has been involved in building community through music since he was a child in Jackson, Miss. He has been a featured soloist at the National Cathedral and Carnegie Hall, and sang Kol Nidrei at Sarah Lawrence College. In addition to composing solo, choral and instrumental pieces, he has had two full-length musicals produced.

When asked if “jazz singer” is a protest piece, Gelb says, “All theater right now is political. It is engaging in the way we talk about politics, in particular. We’re ready to wrestle with, more than just look at, race and culture.”

He adds, “It’s exciting working with Nehemiah, actually being able to create a space that is brave.”

Is the show autobiographical?

“I won’t say no. For all of us.”

“jazz singer” will be performed Sept. 24-Oct. 12 at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St., Manhattan, (212) 352-3101, abronsartscenter.org.