One-Man Play Shines Spotlight On Life Of Legendary Jazz Musician
The Chromolume Theatre company is celebrating this Black History Month with the world premiere of Willard Manus' one-man play, Prez, about legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young, starring actor/musician Leslie A. Jones in the title role. The nickname "Prez" was conferred on Young early in his career by close friend and frequent co-performer Billie Holiday.
Set in a Paris hotel room shortly before the artist's death in 1959, the play would seem to be directly inspired by the interview with Young that local journalist Francois Postif conducted and recorded at the Hotel d'Angleterre in January of that year (though the show's program does not identify Postif or that interview as source material). The whole play is constructed as one side of the dialogue between Young and a female reporter whom he persistently addresses as "Lady Francois," which strikes something of a false chord throughout since Francois is a masculine name in French (Postif was male).
Young certainly had an eventful life, beginning his musical career as a small child playing in his abusive father's traveling bands before moving on to join forces with fellow sax man Coleman Hawkins and the Count Basie Orchestra, which made him a star. As was typical for touring jazz musicians in his day, Young and his bandmates were subjected to the harsh indignity of the South's racist Jim Crow segregation laws. By the time of his death at age 49, he had been married three times, and had seen his artistic popularity and influence rise and fall and rise again while he fell prey to the alcohol addiction that ended up killing him.
Prez duly relates many of the events comprising his personal story over the course of the play's 70 minutes, which gives us a substantial sense of his life and times, but less so of his personality and musical genius. Jones' performance is affecting and engaging, but he is hard-pressed to rise above the predominantly and-then-this-happened-and-then-that-happened structure of the monologue he's given.
Director Daniel Edward Keogh maintains an upbeat tone that never lets the bitterness of some of Young's recollections linger in the play's emotional atmosphere for very long. Also the production's set designer, Keogh incongruously places 21st century lamps and a 1930s telephone in his 1959 hotel chamber. When Young puts on his and his colleagues' LPs for us to listen to at different points during the play, Chromolume owner and sound designer James Esposito delivers a rich listening experience that sent us back later to re-encounter the essential Prez legacy that never stops resonating.
Prez plays Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. at the Attic theater space through the end of February. Tickets are available for $22 ($15.40 using voucher code PZ30)