Nat “King” Cole once considered himself the “Jackie Robinson of Television” because he was the first African-American to host a television variety show. The show began as a 15-minute outing in November, 1956 on NBC. It began without a national sponsor because a fear by Madison Avenue of a backlash in the Deep South. The show remained without one for its entire 64-week run. This was the era when U.S. Steel, Alcoa, Kraft, Ford, Chevy and other brands were often part of a TV show’s title. Cole cancelled the show himself when the network, who always stood by him, decided to move the show to an undesirable early Saturday evening time slot. Playwrights Colman Domingo & Patricia McGregor have created a play with music entitled Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole which is receiving its West Coast Premiere at The Geffen Playhouse. It’s a candid look back at a barely remembered period in America’s troubled racial history. The writers show the indignities Cole had to suffer like having his faced powdered down so he filmed less dark and the silly distance he had to keep from his white female guests.
The action takes place on the night of December 17, 1957, at the taping of the final show. Cole is depressed by the ending of his show and his constant battle against the rampant prejudice of the time. Cole’s cool public demeanor breaks at times as he gives vent to his anger and frustration. It’s a powerful and theatrical storytelling device that is occasionally marred by unclear writing and the not always in sync direction of McGregor. Most of the time the “fantasy” sequences are clearly delineated by changes in the set design by Clint Ramos & Ryan Howell, with the TV studio lights and band disappearing from view. Other times the studio set is still in place during what is clearly a rage-filled fantasy in Cole’s mind. These rages are usually fueled by the appearance of Sammy Davis, Jr. who acts as the devil on Cole’s shoulder, encouraging his break with pleasing the white folks.
Dule Hill gives a commanding performance as Cole, looking and sounding like the star in his prime. Most of the singer’s big hits get some play, in full or in part, by either Hill or one of the many other fine singers in the cast. Gisela Adisa scorches the stage as the one and only Eartha Kitt while Ruby Lewis does a great job as both Betty Hutton and Peggy Lee. Daniel J. Watts is a dynamo as Davis and his tap dancing duel with Hill is the show’s highpoint. The writing gets heavy handed as the show progresses and could use some smoothing out. The direction also needs to be clarified. The performers are ready; give them the material to really sell this story.
The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Los Angeles. Ends March 24. www.geffenplayhouse.org.