People's Light & Theatre Company's New Play Frontiers Residency and Commission Program produced last season's superb Project Dawn, and other new works are in development. The program's second full production, Lights Out: Nat "King" Cole, is an ambitious play with music that explores the talented singer's career and the racism he struggled against.
Writers Colman Domingo (The Scottsboro Boys, Fear the Walking Dead) and Patricia McGregor (who also directs) place Lights Out in the NBC studio where Cole tapes the final episode of his variety show (vintage-looking '50s set by Clint Ramos, authentic costumes by Katherine O'Neill). It's unpopular with advertisers and the network, who won't fund a black man as host, especially in the South, where some stations refuse to air it.
Knowing that, due to racism, his December 17, 1957, broadcast is his last could provide enough drama for Cole, played with authentic voice but overwrought anguish by Dulé Hill (famous for TV's The West Wing and Psych, also a veteran stage actor). The story, however, veers into fantasy. It includes biographical flashbacks, a surprise appearance by Sammy Davis Jr., references to Sinatra's "My Way" (a decade too soon), and Dan Quayle's famous mangling of the United Negro College Fund's slogan "a mind is a terrible thing to waste."
Daniel J. Watts's Sammy mugs manically, but he’s also an impish alter ego responding to racism much like President Obama's "anger translator" Luther, Keegan Michael Key's brilliant creation. Domingo and McGregor also mold him to serve their larger agenda. They move from disturbing authenticity — the network's efforts to lighten Cole's skin with makeup — to invented slights, such as Betty Hutton (Rachael Duddy) referencing the KKK and an over-the-top advertising campaign for "urban cigarettes."
Was the stark reality of 1950s racism not shocking enough? Cole faced segregation and antagonism throughout his career: many black people reviled him for playing to white audiences, neighbors burned the N-word into his Los Angeles lawn, and Alabama white supremacists attacked him on stage, but these episodes receive only passing mention.
The production also goes to the trouble of attaching "Nielsen boxes" to each audience chair. We're instructed to dial in our responses. The boxes are clearly dummies, an elaborate concoction to show that ratings were faked, and are soon forgotten.
Lights Out crams a lot into its 80 minutes. Along with the hasty exploration of racism, it provides 16 music numbers, with Hill capably singing like Cole (albeit distractingly over-miked). His duet of "Anything You Can Do" with Hutton is sung in its entirety, but its thematic significance is shown only by a stagehand using a labeled "decency stick" to separate the black host from his white guest. He sings with Eartha Kitt and his teen daughter Natalie (both portrayed fabulously by Gisela Adisa), and duets with 11-year-old Billy Preston (Dayshawn Jacobs).
The jarring juxtaposition of Cole's hits and famous guests with the racist treatment he endured makes a vital point, but Lights Out doesn't marry the two parts well. Sometimes the show is colorblind, as when chorus members form interracial couples; other times, they portray segregation's harsh realities. The script also attempts a nightmare scenario that falls flat: an amateurish, desperate "it was all a dream" idea.
Lights Out shows there's a long journey from fascinating subject to coherent play. Perhaps Hill's star power will propel Lights Out toward a worthier, and more worthwhile, work of theater.