There was an unbridled excitement inside Woolfe Street Playhouse last night before the lights dimmed and the spotlight shone on the realization of Edmund Thornton Jenkins’ Afram ou la Belle Swita, a three-piece operetta that may have died with the composer in 1926 were it not for Spoleto.
Judging from a few eavesdropped conversations, show-goers couldn’t wait to be a part of history in the making. You see, Jenkins, a Charleston native and African-American composer who studied at London's Royal Academy of Music in the 1920s, took his father’s (and Charleston’s) Jenkins Orphanage bands to adoring European audiences, and finally, once settled in Paris, created his final offering — this exceptionally fun operetta. It’s to the viewer’s advantage to know this history, as the writer’s own trajectory is played out in Afram, a story that travels from Africa to the American South and eventually to the kind of 1920s Parisian nightclub Jenkins himself would have performed in.
Early on, the cast recognizes the incredible inclusion of pianist Tuffus Zimbabwe, Jenkins’ grand nephew who currently performs with the Saturday Night Live band in New York City, not far from where his family’s Jenkins Orphanage Band performed each night during Broadway’s 1927 production of Porgy, the novel/play on which Porgy and Bess was based. Knowing these connections also gives the viewer an advantage and sets the mood for the night.
Performed in a jazzed-up nightclub setting just as Jenkins would have wished, Afram highlights the journey of an African princess and prince in pursuit of one another. A five-piece jazz ensemble — trumpet, clarinet, drums, violin, piano — along with an 11-member cast, narrates, playfully, for the most part, the story through side moments of real talk with the audience (“... like shit was hunky dory in the South back then when it ain’t even that way now”), musical interludes (guess what song says we’ve arrived in the land of the free and the home of the brave), and the classically trained voices of the cast.
The casual club-like setting lends itself to a cheerful boisterousness the production uses to its advantage. Characters sit, stand, dance, and “drink” (though there’s trouble finding “a decent shot of bourbon” during the Parisian revue) among the audience while playing out a fairy tale that comes complete with the foxtrot and imagery of palmettos and pines. And while there are poignant scenes indicating that the characters’ country was invaded, the prince went to war, and nobody knows the troubles they’ve all seen, Afram is light, romantic, and all heart.
No, Afram isn’t serious and it doesn’t pretend to be, and that doesn’t take away from the fact that Jenkins’ fantastic vision has at last come to life with the help of an exceedingly special and talented crew. That is something that is seriously important. After a sprightly hour-and-15-minute show, you’ll leave with a very assured sense of its beautifully historical significance, but you’ll also leave with a bit more pep in your step, too.
Side tip: No jacket necessary as the playhouse is quite warm inside. Arrive early to grab a cold drink and find your seat.