at the Amethyst

Even with its attempt at supper-club ambience — white tablecloths, candlelight, and flowers — Edgewater’s Amethyst Bar and Grill is pretty funky. And its bare-brick back room in the past has played host primarily to experimental theater — some of it successful, most of it interesting, but none of it particularly polished.

In this setting, the two-man, one-act musical Rollin’ is quite a surprise. The well-honed professionalism of Ronald “Smokey” Stevens and Jaye Stewart hits you from their first entrance (in a rhythmically charged chant about performers “rollin'” by train from one one-nighter to the next), and it keeps bubbling along through a variety of comedy bits and songs Stevens and Stewart have collected from the days of the black vaudeville circuit — the TOBA circuit. TOBA stood for Theater Owners Booking Association, the organization that serviced and exploited black performers in the days of Jim Crow segregation; the folks who worked it coined a more apt nickname — Tough on Black Asses.

Ron Stevens (who starred in the national company of One Mo’ Time) has a fascination with this period of show-business history; he has unearthed a treasure trove of vintage 1920s and ’30s material in his research and some of it appears in Rollin’. Stevens also has an affinity for the period; whether slinking sexily through the rubber-limbed moves of the “Hop Scop Blues,” blithely executing a classic Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap routine, or wrapping his high, hoarse voice around the linguistic excesses of the old Miller & Lyles sketches (“The mo’ I sees o’ you, the suspiciouser I gets!”), Stevens brings nimble grace and fine-tuned enthusiasm to the tiny, bare Amethyst stage.

His partner, Jaye Stewart, is a less developed musical-comedy performer than Stevens, but he’s a strong actor, whether clowning his way through “Huggin’ and Chalkin'” (a comic song about a man who uses chalk to chart a path around his oversize woman during sex) or delivering the monologues that link the show’s scenes. These monologues, structured as “offstage” counterpoint to the “onstage” vaudeville vignettes, are taken not from the 20s but from the postwar period. Most are excerpted from Langston Hughes’s “Simple” stories, many of which appeared in the Chicago Defender in the 1950s and ’60s; there is also a poignant piece by Gwendolyn Brooks about a black child’s recognition of his own family’s internalized racial self-hate. Through these vivid, witty stories, with their wry observations about black life in a white-dominated society, Rollin’ highlights the racist attitudes often reflected in the vaudeville routines, even as it presents these routines as a significant part of a forgotten cultural legacy.

At this point, Rollin’ is being presented as a low-budget, Equity-waiver showcase. There are still technical glitches to be ironed out, some of the transitions need to be smoothed over, and the addition of a live pianist would boost the evening’s energy (though the old recordings that accompany, the action now are certainly evocative). But there’s nothing low about the performances; Stevens and Stewart are a joy to watch for their slick timing and the full-bodied energy they project. And the juxtaposition of the old music-hall routines with the subtly artful material by Hughes and Brooks proves instructive as well as entertaining. Rollin’ is a delightful, offbeat cabaret diversion with a promising future.

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