With the author’s characteristic fluidity and passion, Regina Taylor’s “Oo-Bla-Dee” chronicles the struggles of post-war jazz musicians trying to make sweet music over the intrusive societal noise of pervasive sexism and racism. This story of an all-female Bebop band trying to persuade America that black females could wail on horns and pound on drums just as well as the white guys is certainly worth the telling. And Taylor, a Goodman artistic associate best known for her TV acting work in “I’ll Fly Away,” writes poetic and often beautiful dialogue. But this potentially powerful show is begging to be a full-blown musical rather than the rambling, uneasy and overly long hybrid currently riffing on the Goodman’s mainstage.
With a three-act structure and a running time that pushes three hours, Taylor’s play strives to be a text-driven epic of August Wilsonian dimensions (the work is obviously indebted to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). But Taylor also dislikes the confines of realism: the play features a bizarre narrator who seems to be a human embodiment of the passage of time, as well as chronological anachronisms that undermine characters who are realistically drawn and tied to period.
The mix of theatrical styles is intriguing and deliberate, but it indicates a writer trying to have everything at once. This show needs to make some tough decisions if it is to have any kind of afterlife.
To overcome the basic casting dilemma of non-musicians essaying the roles of superb jazz players, Taylor and co-director Susan Booth deftly dub recorded music underneath carefully simulated musicianship. It’s well done, but one still senses the show running away from the music, and thus the soul of jazz seems peripheral rather than integral to the story.
The central character is a sax and trumpet player named Gin Del Sol (Caroline Clay) who quits her Memphis home to travel to St. Louis and join a band called Evelyn Waters and the Diviners. The strong-willed Waters allows the newcomer into her outfit, managed by a cheery fellow named Shorty (Earnest Perry Jr.), just as the struggling musicians find they have a chance at a recording contract in Chicago. Most of the early conflict in the play surrounds Gin’s relationship with the other band members, including a pot-smoking drummer named Lulu (Margo Moorer) and a quiet but determined bass player named Ruby (Cheryl Lynn Bruce).
The second act is composed entirely of the car ride from St. Louis to Chicago , which seems excessively long. And in the third act, Taylor becomes preoccupied with Gin’s relationship with an Air Force pilot (Jimi Antoine) and the personal sacrifices it forces her to make. This 11th-hour romance does not seem to hang together with the rest of the tale, and the dramatic frame it provides consequently seems cheap.
“Oo-Bla-Dee” has some superb monologues, including a wonderful second-act speech delivered by Perry with real aplomb. Indeed the seven actors in the ensemble are all strong performers.
Despite Taylor’s extraordinary gifts for language, this show plays as a work in progress. “Oo-Bla-Dee” could morph into a fascinating, fluid musical or a weighty social drama. But the soul of a potentially important show is currently strangled by excessive eclecticism.