note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
Most of us are unaware of Ernest Hogan, who, in his brief lifetime, created a major impact on American music - and racism.
Born Ernest Reuben Crowders (or Crowdus), in 1865, in the Shake Rag District of Bowling Green, Ky., he was the first African-American entertainer to produce and star in a Broadway show, “The Oyster Man,” in 1907 (or 1909). He created ragtime in 1895, and popularized it; and created a new genre of songs, called “coon songs,” including the biggest hit of his era, “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” a tune he heard in back rooms and cafes, bearing a more colorful title. Hogan substituted the word pimps for coons, and added a cakewalk syncopated beat to it.
Hogan, (who assumed his Irish surname because Irish performers were popular at the time), wrote and starred in the musical comedy “Rufus Raftus,” created a comedy dance he called “la pas ma la,” and although he was African-American, he sometimes performed in blackface, like his white counterparts. He also lived just long enough to regret his career, based on poking fun at his own people, using that racial slur in his song, and his stereotypical images of African-Americans. Hogan was accused of race betrayal, and, later, was ashamed and apologetic. But he was proud of putting ragtime on paper and creating a new musical rhythm heralded as the first truly American genre.
He died of tuberculosis May 20,1909, at age 44. Despite his fame - or infame - there’s a paucity of information about this handsome African-American, who broke down entertainment barriers and left a lasting legacy in music lexicons.
Michael Aman’s two-person, one-act play, “The Unbleached American,” stars actor Johnny Lee Davenport, who delivers a riveting performance as the ailing Hogan, and Laura Latreille, as fictitious Irish private nurse, Sharon Flynn, whom Hogan hires to care for him and hopefully preserve his life. Set in 1906, in Hogan’s New York City town house parlor, Davenport is larger than life, whether he’s reclining on the sofa, plinking the piano keys, playing the gramophone, taking photos with a nifty,new camera, swigging from a bottle or flask, or doing a little dance while recalling his glory days on stage. Katy Monthei’s fascinating early 20th century set, packed with memorabilia and art, bordered by music sheets hanging down on both sides of the stage, and Elisabetta Polito’s period costumes, are concrete reminders of Hogan’s bygone era.
Directed by Stoneham Artistic Director Weylin Symes, Latreille fades and too occasionally flourishes in Aman’s poorly-defined role. When Sharon initially meets Hogan, she’s quiet, businesslike. During their conversation, she admits she knows who he is, saw him perform, and enjoyed his show. He made her laugh, she says.
During their growing relationship, Hogan is blustery, boisterous, while performing Hogan’s routines, and encouraging Sharon to join him, while they share a bottle and flask or two. Although he looks older, the fortyish Hogan’s tuberculosis doesn’t stop him from acting randy and chasing Sharon around the parlor.
Sharon reveals her own truths - that her Irish father was a mediocre performer who at times appeared blackface on stage. She says she’s a much better performer than he was, and should have been a stage star. However, while singing and dancing with Hogan, she’s far from outstanding.
Both Hogan and Sharon have hang-ups. He’s wealthy beyond imagination, but earned his money by making fun of his people. “I sold my soul,” he laments. She claims she gave up her chance at stardom to care for her sick, now deceased father.
The two rage and romance, growing closer, as Hogan realizes his mortality and Sharon admits she can’t save him. Their conversation is confusing at times, and the dialogue oftentimes is leaden. During a final exchange, he asks, “Where did you come from? Who are you?” “I am you,” she replies quixotically. Somehow, something gets lost in transition.
Despite Davenport’s sterling performance, Aman’s play lacks the drama, pathos and tension that plagued Hogan’s life.
BOX INFO: World premiere of one-act, 90-minute, two-person play, starring Johnny Lee Davenport and Laura Latreille, appearing at Stoneham Theatre (395 Main St., Stoneham) through April 27. Performances:Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets:$45-$50; seniors, $40-$45. For more information, visit stonehamtheatre.org or call 781-279-2200.