When you think of the Cotton Club or Carnegie Hall, a few distinct images come to mind: Women in flapper dresses, boas, panty hose and vampy lipstick; men dressed to the nines in elaborate suits, fine shoes and fedoras. Beyond the fashion, the music of the time was transformative and iconic.
The Indiana Performing Arts Centre (IPAC) is bringing that same legendary vibe to the Circle City this holiday season with its latest production, A Cotton Club Carnegie Hall Christmas.
“Last year we did The Night Before Christmas and did a lot of Motown. This year we wanted to do something Afrocentric, but something a little different, so I did some research and we decided to do the Cotton Club Carnegie Hall Christmas,” said Georgette Smith, the play’s co-writer and director.
The musical begins with telling the stories of some of the biggest names of the era — Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Lena Horne and others — as children before transitioning into their lives as famous performers making their way in New York City.
Smith explained that performances like this are important to increase the diversity of Indianapolis theater. “In Indianapolis, there is a great lack of (diversity in theater),” she said. “It’s important because it’s a part of our faith. We want to be that theater that people come to not only to see Black theater, but other cultures represented as well.”
She added that it is IPAC’s goal to help young actors and actresses gain exposure. “We have invited different stars to the plays … our hope is that maybe one day someone could be discovered, because oftentimes, they only get to perform in their church. With us being downtown at the Athenaeum, we’re right in the middle of the hustle and bustle.”
Smith shared that some of the narratives about people like Ellington, Holliday and Fitzgerald inspired her to expand the production to include history as well.
The Cotton Club, which originally opened in Harlem in the early 1920s, was a whites-only establishment. Langston Hughes, author, poet and thought leader, was one of very few Blacks ever allowed to attend the club without being on stage. Hughes compared the venue to a “zoo” of sorts and said it was “a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites.”
Though segregation threatened to stifle the livelihoods of the Black performers — many of whom, despite dominating the scene with enormous talent, were subject to discrimination and unable to even patronize the venues they performed at, — their legendary contributions changed the face of art and culture in this country and around the world.
Beyond Christmas tunes, the IPAC cast will sing music of the time, as well. Audiences can expect to hear everything from “At Last” (Etta James) to “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” (Mable Scott).
“It’s an excellent show, the music is wonderful and the talent is unbelievable,” said Smith. “You’ll get history, cabaret, dance … our goal is to get you in the Christmas spirit.”
Ticket Sales and Showtimes
November 25 – 7:30 PM – $15.00
November 26 – 2:00 PM and 7:30 PM – Buy one ($15.00) get the second for $5.00
All performances will be held at the Athenaeum, located at 401 E. Michigan Street Indpls, IN 46204
Visit brownpapertickets.com and use the promo code ‘xmas’ or charge by phone at 317-294-7005