Originally published on PXP
"State Law Requires All Colored Passengers to Ride in Rear of Bus"
I remember squinting at those words as I took my seat next to the very tiny stage. While I initially hadn’t much of a clue what this musical was about, this sentence made the territory clear. Stenciled out in large block letters on the rear wall of the set, the sentence would serve as a constant reminder of the circumstances surrounding the musical’s characters – most of whom I’d soon adore. Set in the deep south during the late 1930s and early 1940s, the characters in Sweetee dealt with the harsh realities of continuing racism and segregation following the civil war, all while juggling their own problems as orphans. Yet, while that sounds heavy, their story is uplifting and the performance which followed was unexpectedly fun and lighthearted.
While I found myself apprehensive at first (because of the threatening stencil) it wasn’t long at all before I was smiling like a goofy little kid, nodding my head, clapping along and stomping my foot to some music. And boy, was it some seriously feel-good music! Ranging from Dixieland jazz and moody blues to heart-wrenching gospel, I felt transported through time and place, with an almost tangible sense of a culture I’ve never even been a part of. The music was toe-tappingly pleasing, and the characters were all performing with musical instruments for most of the show. I’m talking a banjo, ukulele, a clarinet, a harmonica, a violin – heck, they even had a washboard and a kazoo. A freaking KAZOO! I must admit, when a character named Thomas came out playing a kazoo at the start of the show, I giggled to myself. I’d never imagine a kazoo being a serious instrument, let alone part of an Off-Broadway professional production. But Thomas proved me wrong – that kazoo-playing was full of soul. I urge anyone with similar feelings about kazoos to give Sweetee a chance to change your mind.
One of the real special music moments for me came midway through the show. The orphans and Reverend Dan decided to make their way to New Orleans, pursuing bigger dreams of success as an orphan band and hoping to earn enough money to settle down in a church up North. Along their travels, the orphans made a pit stop at a railroad station. Seemingly out of nowhere, a young man named Cat Jones appeared. That was when the show really took me – Cat Jones, a musician himself, shared a moment with the orphans. He prompted each member of the group to grab an instrument and suddenly the stage was swirling with music and dance. It was the jam sesh of all jam seshes, with the characters even weaving in and out of the audience. I was struck by the infectious laughter and sheer happiness that this music brought. Amidst their world of segregated train cars, racism, and poverty, you’d never doubt that these guys were somehow on top of the world. There was something palpable to that happiness and joy. It spoke to the power of happy music during dark times.
Nothing seemed impossible for these characters as they persevered despite every nasty racist comment, personal battle, or abusive circumstance. They did it all, falling back on their joyous instruments and voices to lift their own spirits. At one point, my favorite guy, Cat Jones, said “You don’t want your music to comfort folks. You want it to get them movin,’ feelin,’ make them happy.” I left the show beaming and momentarily removed from all my worries. I felt reminded that we can all find our own happiness to cope.