On Kentucky Avenue
Best Director of a Musical: Lee Summers
Best Actor in a Musical:Ty Stephens
Best Featured Actor in a Musical: Count Stovall
Outstanding Musical Director: Richard Cummings Jr.
Best Musical: Wade and Wade Productions and City College Center for the Arts
By GWEN OREL
“Damita, Damita, Damita, you haven’t changed!”
The old man with a cane who had come backstage to see her began to cry. You haven’t gained a pound, he said. You look fabulous.
Jeree Wade, who was playing Damita Jo, a singer at Club Harlem in Atlantic City in 1969, had to make a quick choice.
She chose to stay in character just a little longer.
“You haven’t either!” she said.
“I’m just going to go with this,” Wade thought. “I gave [the admirer] a moment in time.”
The show she created, and in which she has a cameo as Damita Jo, “On Kentucky Avenue,” won six Audelco Awards on Monday, Nov. 19, including Best Musical.
Established in 1973 by Vivian Robinson, the AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee, Inc.) is an organization that “acknowledges and honors Black Theatre and its artists in New York City,” according to its website, audelco.org.
“I didn’t expect to win anything,” Wade said with a laugh. “We were up against ‘Carmen Jones,’ and shows that were really great. I didn’t have a speech planned.”
To win an award, you usually need to “get out and to do a little politicking, and I am just not a politician,” Wade said. “On Kentucky Avenue” has existed in different formats since 2011, when it had its first performance at the Westminster Arts Center in Bloomfield.
The show celebrates the era and style of Atlantic City’s Club Harlem during its heyday of the 1950s and ’60s; in 1969, as the club’s business began to fall off, as the music changed. Club Harlem, founded in 1935, was one of many “Chitlin’ Circuit” Clubs in Atlantic City. At one time, Club Harlem presented acts such as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, as well as Nancy Wilson. It was often called the “Black Copacabana.”
Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin might drop in from headlining a neighboring club for the 5 a.m. show at Club Harlem. One thing that set Club Harlem apart was that acts and audience were integrated, though Atlantic City was decidedly not.
BACK TO THE BOOK
“On Kentucky Avenue” has developed a lot in the past seven years, Wade said. Originally, she and husband Adam Wade, who directed the first production, wanted to do a book show. But they hadn’t finished it by the time they had the space, so they ran a revue instead, with a light book.
The show that won six awards last week is a book show again, after a year of intensive dramaturgy with director Lee Summers.
Set at a dress rehearsal in 1969, the show portrays a love triangle between producer Ivan King (Montclair’s Ty Stephens), lead showgirl Betty Jo Stanton (N’Kenge), and her best friend Pauline Pierce (Andricka Hall). In addition to Jeree Wade’s cameo appearance as Damita Jo, director Lee Summers performs as comedian Slappy Black (a character modelled on real-life comedian Slappy White).
The show is about half original music, in the style of the period by Ty Stephens, Frank Owens, Wilbur Bascomb, Branice McKenzie, Adam Wade and Jeree Wade, and half standards.
“Adam and I both worked at Club Harlem. We knew the club. No one else in the who show had ever been there,” Wade said. It was important to show what the club was like for those who had never seen it, and to replicate it for those who had, she added.
“I sit out every night in a gown and dress coat. I go onstage in the middle to do one song, one song done by one woman who was a staple at Club Harlem. I pretend I’ve been touring, and I’m so happy to be back in Atlantic City,” she said. “The older audience at City College went crazy.
They knew who I was talking about.”
And that’s why Wade didn’t have the heart to correct the weeping old man who was so happy to see Damita Jo.
“I made him happy,” Wade said. “That’s why I do this.
“I do it for things like that.”