`Bricktop' is music and history

Playwright Ramsey found his material in a forgotten singer's trunk

theater column

January 18, 2007|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

You might say that the musical Bricktop was born in a trunk. The trunk had belonged to an African-American singer named Ada "Bricktop" Smith and was purchased a few years ago by the library at Atlanta's Emory University, which is where native Baltimore playwright Calvin A. Ramsey saw it.

Ramsey had never heard of the singer, but when he started going through her trunk, he says, "I saw all these telegrams from Cole Porter, letters from Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen. And I said, `Who is this woman who would have heard from all of these people?'"

The answer has turned into a musical, which opened a five-week run at MetroStage in Alexandria, Va., last night. Co-written by Ramsey and director Thomas W. Jones, Bricktop traces the career of the singer, who ran a cabaret in Paris for four decades beginning in 1924, and also examines her friendship with singers Mabel Mercer and Alberta Hunter.

The title character, Ramsey discovered in his research, was called "Bricktop" because "she was a light-skinned black woman with red hair and freckles." His research also led him to the oldest adopted son of Josephine Baker (who came to Paris a year after Bricktop) and to Langston Hughes' memoir, The Big Sea, which has a chapter on Bricktop.

The music in the show ranges "from Eubie Blake to Cole Porter to [Johnny] Mercer and up to the music in 1984," the year Bricktop, Hunter and Mercer all died.

Although Bricktop is Ramsey's first musical, it's not the first play for this 56-year-old former insurance agent. Concentrating on what he calls "unknown pages in African-American history," Ramsey's other scripts include The Green Book, about a guidebook listing places where black travelers were welcome in the South during the Jim Crow era, and Shermantown, Baseball, Apple Pie, and the Klan, a play whose depiction of Ku Klux Klan meetings provoked controversy in 2005 when readings were canceled by a Stone Mountain, Ga., theater.

His most recent project is a children's book, The Last Mule of Gee's Bend, about the mule that pulled the Rev. Martin Luther King's casket to its resting place in Atlanta. And, having gotten a taste of musicals, Ramsey has already begun thinking about another - a show about the music of Baltimore, from Eubie Blake to Dru Hill.

Bricktop runs through Feb. 25 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria, Va. Tickets are $35-$40. Call 800-494-8497 or visit metrostage.org.

Get `Wicked'

If tickets to Wicked's forthcoming run at the Hippodrome seem wickedly difficult to get, here's one solution. Day-of-performance lotteries for a limited number of $25 tickets for best-available seats will be held at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw, each day of the show's Jan. 24-Feb. 18 engagement. Patrons must come to the box office 2 1/2 hours prior to curtain time and submit their names, which will be drawn 30 minutes later. Lottery tickets are limited to two per person.

In other Hippodrome news, Cherry Jones, who won a 2005 Tony Award for her portrayal of stern Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, will reprise that role when the show comes to Baltimore May 1-13. Jones, who also won a Tony in 1995 for her depiction of the title character in The Heiress, starred in Center Stage's 1993 production of A Moon for the Misbegotten.

New theater company

There's a new theater company in town. Single Carrot Theatre, founded in Boulder, Colo., in 2005 by recent University of Colorado graduates, will present A Short Play Festival this weekend at Mobtown Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road. The bill includes two scripts by local playwrights, An Interview with Martin Van Buren, by Ira Gamerman, and Martha's Choice, by Rich Espey, and a third, True Blue, by Los Angeles-based Mary Steelsmith.

J. Buck Jabaily, the company's artistic director (his day job is box office manager at Everyman Theatre), said the company moved here because of "the growth Baltimore is going through and the idea that the city values art and wants to grow in that way."

According to its mission statement, Single Carrot "strives to infuse theater with new life while entertaining and educating our community with socially significant productions." The company's name comes from a Paul Cezanne quote: "The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution."

Single Carrot's innovations include its ticket prices. This weekend's tickets cost $3 plus whatever number shows up in the roll of a single die, making the final price anywhere from $4 to $9. Show times are 7:30 tonight-Sunday, with a matinee at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 443-844-9254.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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