ETA Creative Arts Foundation

The image I’ve always had of jazz musician Fats Waller, based on his recordings and the few film appearances I’ve seen, has always been that of the sad clown. Behind the devilish, risque, slightly campy, eager-to-please facade that Waller projected, I sensed, lay a reservoir of loneliness and pain that added an undercurrent of poignancy, even desperation, to his stylish, bouncy songs and rollicking stride piano style.

Runako Jahi’s new play Fats: His Life and Times deals very much with the tension between Waller’s carefree public persona and his troubled private life. Within a pageantlike structure that celebrates Waller’s career in a series of tableaux enacted by a singing-acting-dancing ensemble of “witnesses,” Jahi touches on the unhappiness that plagued Waller throughout his short life (he died at age 39, on the road between gigs). Fats is no Lady Sings the Blues-style melodrama; Jahi explores Waller’s problems more by implication than by overt statement. The man whom Jahi invites us to both admire and learn from is a man suffering from lack of moral direction and emotional focus, driven to foolish excess as compensation for a childhood torn by conflicted feelings. That Fats brims over with passion and excitement even as it tells this disturbing story is testimony to the strength of Jahi’s script, to the solidness of Okoro Harold Johnson’s direction, to the talent and versatility of the cast, and, of course, to the lasting greatness and infectious freshness of Waller’s music.

In Jahi’s account of his subject’s life, the source of both Waller’s strengths and weaknesses was the black church. It was the church that first aroused Waller’s musical instincts; and it was against the church that he rebelled when he turned to jazz. It was the church that nurtured him, through his deeply loving, deeply religious mother; and it was the church that tormented him, through his ultra-strict father, a deacon who denounced his son for playing “the devil’s music.”

In attempting to provide spiritual guidance and a solid foundation for their son’s life, Waller’s parents instead bred into him, quite unknowingly, a lack of discipline and contempt for authority that left him adrift in his adult life. Trying to recapture the love and protection he’d received from his mother, Fats jumped naively into a youthful marriage that ended in bitter divorce and haunted him the rest of his life; looking to older men for the approval he never got from his father, Fats was a sucker at the hands of unscrupulous white music publishers (though in his 30s he benefited, belatedly, from the sincere support of white business managers).

Playwright Jahi traces the patterns of hopeful aspiration and needless self-destruction that ran through Waller’s personal and professional life–leaving him at the mercy of a vindictive ex-wife who used alimony as revenge for her own romantic unhappiness, and robbing him of his rightful credit and financial reward (and, Jahi says, in some cases even authorship recognition) for such tunes as “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Mean to Me,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Black and Blue,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” and “The Sunny Side of the Street.”

It is those songs, of course, that ensure Waller’s fame long after his brief life; especially in its second act, Fats bubbles with fine solo and choral renditions of Waller’s oeuvre. The performers are in fine voice, especially Sherry Scott (sublime as jazz singer Edith Wilson singing “Black and Blue”); Kevin McIlvaine (a strong young actor with a husky but fluid voice who takes on a range of roles, from stern Deacon Waller to a divinely decadent Willie “the Lion” Smith); Sybil Walker (who tears up the house on “Stormy Weather” and also effects a chilling transformation, from girlish sweetness to harpyish hatefulness, as Fats’s wife); high school senior Joe Young as the adolescent Fats, full of ambition and heartbreaking hopefulness; and Vance Williams as the adult Fats, superbly evoking his character’s trademark naughty-boy personality while offering telling glimpses of the hurt underneath.

The prerecorded musical backing, by a trio led by pianist Rufus Hill, is authentic, vigorous, and delightful.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ken Simmons.