Back by popular demand, On Kentucky Avenue: A Celebration of Atlantic City’s Historic Club Harlem returns to City College’s performing arts center Aaron Davis Hall on Friday, February 19, for a three-day encore engagement. The show, which shines a red-hot spotlight on a little-known piece of Black history and a famed club that came out of the segregation era, is presented by the City College Center for the Arts (CCCA) and Byron and Sylvia Lewis. An audience favorite, last February, the production was created by Jeree Wade and directed and written by Adam Wade with Ty Stephens.
Called “one of New York’s most magical and electric shows” by Broadway After Dark, the musical is fictional but inspired by real people in a real place: Kentucky Avenue in racially segregated Atlantic City, New Jersey, one of the premier night spots for Black entertainment in the country. Summers were hot, not only because of the balmy beach weather but also by virtue of the sizzling music and dance emanating from the clubs on the block.
The most famous spot of all in the beach town was Club Harlem, named in honor of the genre of Black live entertainment that was fast-paced, jazzy and pulsating, with dancers, singers, elegant showgirls, comedians and specialty acts. In the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it was one of the hottest “Chitlin’ Circuit” clubs—a collection of performance venues that Black entertainers could tour and perform in during racial segregation in America, and establishments that African-American audiences could patronize. Performers at the “Black Copacabana” included Ella Fitzgerald, Richard Pryor, Sammy Davis Jr., Nancy Wilson, Billy Daniels, Moms Mabley, Duke Ellington, Slappy White, Sarah Vaughan and the Temptations, but headliners from neighboring clubs would often stop by for Club Harlem’s 5 a.m. show—renowned entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Where other Chitlin’ Circuit clubs were segregated, Club Harlem was integrated in a segregated city, with local Whites and casino patrons as well as Blacks locally and from the eastern seaboard flocking there to enjoy the acts.
“On Kentucky Avenue offers a fantastic opportunity to present an exciting nugget of our past in an imaginative, fresh way,” said Byron and Sylvia Lewis, who also serve as CCCA Advisory Board members. “The music and the talent of this cast transport audiences to an era when music was rich and shows featured intricate dancing that kept you entranced.”
“On Kentucky Avenue is a fitting experience in Aaron Davis Hall given its history and CCCA’s mission. Many of the artists who performed at Club Harlem entertained audiences at Aaron Davis Hall, including Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and Chuck Jackson,” said CCCA Managing Director Gregory Shanck. “In fact, Ella Fitzgerald, along with Mikhail Baryshnikov and others, performed at the opening of the building.”
The setting is the 1969 season opening night dress rehearsal. A love triangle develops between producer Ivan King (Ty Stephens), the lead showgirl Betty Jo Stanton (Renee Ternier) and her best friend the featured female vocalist Pauline Pierce (Andricka Hall). Jeree Wade makes a special appearance as Damita Jo, a popular singer who often opened the summer entertainment season. The production features Lee Summers as Slappy Black and Joseph Wiggans as Jimmy Coles. Rounding out the ensemble are Carmen Carriker, Donna Clark, Gregory J. Hanks, Mindy Haywood, Olutayo, Cassandra Palacio, Devin Price, Zhana Saunders and Garrett Turner. Keeping the music flowing each night is the Freddie Baxter Band, which includes: Frank Owens as Freddie Baxter (piano), Wilbur Bascomb as Odell Craft (bass), David Silliman as Sticks (drums), Richard Cummings Jr. as Vincent Campbell (synthesizer) and Jack Cavari as Colombo (guitar).
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On Kentucky Avenue is produced by Adam Wade, Robert R. Blume, Songbirds Unlimited Productions and Cobi Narita. Scenic design is by Ty Stephens, Piero Ramos and Yvette Spellman, choreography by Ty Stephens and swing choreographer and tap consulting by Mickey Davidson, costume design by Pearl Williams and Ty Stephens and music direction by Frank Owens. On Kentucky Avenue features ’60s chart-topping music plus an original score true to the era by Ty Stephens, Frank Owens, Wilbur Bascomb, Branice McKenzie, Adam Wade and Jeree Wade.
Performances are Friday, February 19 at 7 p.m., Saturday, February 20 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday, February 21 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online at http://www.citycollegecenterforthearts.org/ or through the box office by telephone at (212) 650-6900 or in person (Monday through Friday from 12 noon to 6 p.m.). Aaron Davis Hall is located on the campus of the City College of New York, at West 135th Street and Convent Avenue (129 Convent Avenue).
City College Center for the Arts can be followed on Twitter at @ccnyarts. For the latest news on the production, follow #OnKentuckyAve or #OKAatCCCA or visit http://www.onkentuckyavenue.com/.
The production is being made possible by FreshDirect.