by ANNA ROSENSWEIG
The Penumbra Theatre is currently reprising its I Wish You Love, an exploration of Nat King Cole’s life, music, and times, after a highly successful world premiere in St. Paul last spring (2011) and a subsequent engagement at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Set at the NBC studios, which somewhat ambivalently housed the Nat King Cole Show from November 1956 until December 1957, the play juxtaposes rehearsals and live performances of Cole’s show with key events from the civil rights movement, as well as scenes of racial violence and discrimination.
Written by Dominic Taylor and directed by Lou Bellamy (Penumbra’s founder and artistic director), “I Wish You Love” demonstrates how Cole (Dennis W. Spears) dealt with his often conflicting roles as an ambassador to “mainstream” white audiences, and as a trailblazer for other black performers. The play also underscores the extent to which Cole simply wanted to be judged based on his formidable talents, a desire he expresses most pointedly during conversations with the other members of his trio, bassist Oliver Moore (Kevin D. West) and guitarist Jeffrey Prince (Eric Berryman).
Penumbra showcases Cole’s talents by featuring twenty of his best-loved hits, as performed on the Nat King Cole Show itself. This framing strategy has some clear advantages. For example, news breaks and commercials punctuate these performances in ways that are both sinister and amusing, and reveal some of the institutional pressures that impinged on Cole’s work. In addition, this structure allows the play to present two sides of Cole’s persona: the savvy entertainer, who never addresses his public without a smile, and the frustrated artist, who becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the racism of his employer and sponsors.
Unfortunately, this staging of a show within a show also has some disadvantages.The pacing often lurches, because it straddles two very different temporal structures and expectations: that of a concert and that of a two-act play. Performing so many songs in their entirety, while delightful, usually stalled the development of the plot rather than furthering it, though there are some notable exceptions (especially in the second act).
The show-within-a-show conceit also falters in its implication of the audience. The fact that Penumbra’s audience for “I Wish You Love” also gets cast as the television audience for the Nat King Cole Show remains under-explored. What does it mean, for example, that as the audience of the television show, we applaud after every musical number, even though these numbers sometimes clash with the pain and sorrow presented behind the scenes. Would the show’s actual in-studio audience have been as privy to these scenes of sadness as Penumbra’s audience is? Does this behind-the-scenes look make a difference in how Cole’s music is received? “I Wish You Love” sets the stage for these questions but doesn’t investigate them. It would have been more compelling to have pushed the dual-casting of the audience further, and to have allowed it to shift in tension with the developments on stage.
Whether or not “I Wish You Love” pushes its audiences as far as it might, the play stages an important story about a fascinating entertainer at a pivotal point in U.S. history. And given the fact that the contemporary theater, film, and television industries still tend to favor white performers and audiences, Cole’s career and legacy seems more important than ever.