Stage

Return to the Days of the Cotton Club, As You Sit Back and Listen to Ain't Misbehavin' at TUTS

Will Mann as Ken in Ain't Misbehavin' at Theatre Under the Stars.
Will Mann as Ken in Ain't Misbehavin' at Theatre Under the Stars. Photo by Melissa Taylor

It's a show that has been part of the Black musical theater canon for years, says actor Will Mann. Now  Ain't Misbehavin' is coming to Theatre Under the Stars with a cast of stellar singers ready to perform a tribute to the music of Fats Waller and other Black artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

Mann (Broadway: Hadestown, Oklahoma!, and Memphis) will go by the name Ken Page in the musical revue which received the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1978. Page is the real life actor who originated the role. But you'll be seeing a lot of Mann himself in the performances, he promises.

"I think what's great about what we're doing is we're bringing ourselves to this play instead of replicating what someone did before us. So the character was named after Ken Page who originated the role. So while I'm playing the role of Ken, I'm actually playing Will Mann through the lens of this period and through the lens of Fats Waller."

The list of Waller's accomplishments is long and impressive. A crucial figure in American jazz, he was a pianist, singer, composer and comedic entertainer. He's best known for the title song of this musical as well as for "Honeysuckle Rose." The lengthy song list also includes The Joint is Jumpin'," "Your Feet's Too Big" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter."

The show presents music from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1910s through 1930s, which coincided with the Great Migration of Blacks to northern U.S. cities. Harlem became known as a mecca for Black artists and music and the arts in general flourished there. The Cotton Club was the must-see nightspot — it lasted in New York City from 1923 to 1940, its Black artists performing for mostly white crowds.

Mann calls the music generated during this creative time phenomenal. "Jazz in the Harlem Renaissance is excellence personified. It's one of the very first truly American art forms and so much American music came from that 30-block radius."

On his part, Mann grew up in California and moved to Texas where he attended Duncanville High School. He had to have an art credit to graduate. "I sang in church so I thought, maybe I'll sing in school as well. Everyone in the choir auditioned for the musical. Then we did Oklahoma my senior year — a show I ended up doing on Broadway in 2019 — and they clapped for me. And once they clapped for me that was kind of the end of the road and I said well this is what I'm doing."

Asked why people should come to see this, Mann says, "Because it's excellence. It's going to be something that people will walk out of the theater humming."  He adds: "I think what people need to know is that these singers are outrageously good.

"Also it's a reflection, I think often we talk to children about what their opportunities are and sometimes they can't know they can be it until they can see it. And when you have an all-Black cast, an all-Black creative team, a female Black director and a Black choreographer these are reflections so that people can see themselves if they are from that culture.

"But also it's a peek into what was a very happening time in American culture."

Performances are scheduled for September 20 through October 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com $40-$135.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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