For modern-day listeners, it's hard to imagine the late Nat "King" Cole as a controversial figure. Yet the peerless balladeer bore an enormous burden at the dawn of the civil rights era. The same year he drew racist violence from hostile Southern whites, he became the first African-American performer to get his own network variety show — only to be berated by the NAACP for laughing and smiling on TV when blood was flowing in the streets.
"But he was sending the civil rights movement money as a result of the show," says jeff obafemi carr, who pays homage to Cole in his new one-man musical drama Route 66. "Nothing stopped him, not even when a shot was fired in the door of his Los Angeles home and crosses burned on his front lawn, or when he was physically attacked during a performance. He always kept his composure and dignity."
Subtitled Finding Nat King Cole, the one-man show blends music, storytelling, poetry and drama as carr plays dual roles: the jazz-pop giant and an actor struggling to make sense of his own career and choices while examining Cole's. The artistic director and founder of the Amun Ra theater company, carr calls the play "the most challenging thing I've ever done as a performer on all levels." Not the least of his challenges is singing such standards as "Unforgettable," "Nature Boy" and "Smile" — songs on which Cole left an indelible imprint.
The script has been in the works for some seven years. But its origins go back much further, to the love carr's late father had for Cole's singing and personality. To help realize the project, the writer-producer-actor enlisted another hyphenate talent: actor-director T'Keyah Crystal Keymah, a theater and TV veteran whose résumé includes In Living Color and Cosby. Director Keymah describes Route 66 as "a story about how all of us are affected by what we hear and see during childhood, and how we then process that and how we evolve into adults."
"I hope that this will encourage people to pull out those old albums, check out the music from a period when the songs and lyrics didn't degrade black women, and even start dancing to those old songs again," Keymah says.
The show caps a dizzyingly ambitious season for Middle Tennessee's only black-owned and -operated theater space, which recently presented Waiting for Godot as well as Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Topdog/Underdog. Carr hopes audiences will leave Route 66 with newfound respect for Cole's many facets as an artist and a man.
"It was his greatness in terms of getting jazz into the mainstream, his willingness to work on behalf of others — sometimes to his own detriment — and his great character that made him an even more compelling human being than he was a giant as a performer," carr says.
Route 66: Finding Nat "King" Cole opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, with additional performances 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. It continues Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Oct. 31. Call 329-4228 for more information.