By the mid-1950s, Nat “King” Cole was one of the biggest singing stars in the world and the most prominent African-American, by far, to host his own television variety show. The Nat King Cole Show aired for just over a year during NBC’s 1956–1957 season and drew only one national sponsor—the makers of Arrid deodorant bought a few months of airtime. The slack was taken up by a number of local alcoholic beverage companies—Rheingold in New York, Regal beer in New Orleans, rotgut Thunderbird in Chicago—who didn’t seem to share Madison Avenue’s fear of a boycott once eyes in the South got a look at Cole sharing the stage with such white, female stars as June Christy, Margaret Whiting, Peggy Lee, Gogi Grant, and the raw and raucous Betty Hutton. (Heads must have exploded across the country when mixed-race couple Pearl Bailey and Louis Bellson appeared as Cole’s guests in July 1957.)
This is the story from which playwright and actor Colman Domingo and writer-director Patricia McGregor have crafted LIGHTS OUT: NAT “KING” COLE, their short and bracing blend of show-stopping entertainment, social activism, and American Grand Guignol, set on December 17, 1957, the final night of the broadcast.
The drama begins with Cole (Dulé Hill, a picture of grace under pressure) sitting at his dressing-room table, contemplating his future and enduring the indignity of the studio’s make-up artist (Mary-Pat Green) reluctantly lightening his skin with powder. Visited by memories, hallucinations, and nightmares, Cole is confronted with the question: Will he call out the racism and abuse that were/are a part of everyday life for black men and women in this country, no matter how successful, or will he remain the singer white America loved to listen to, but not share a meal with—smooth, dignified, reserved Nat Cole?*
The angel-devil on Cole’s shoulder pushing him to break out of his shell is the triple-threat Rat Packer Sammy Davis, Jr., played by Daniel J. Watts as a delight of motor-mouth megalomania. Singing, swinging, mugging, telling jokes, imitating Cole, and—midway through the show—joining the headliner in a cathartic tap-dance duel that brought down the house, Davis is Cole’s conscience, a release valve for his eleventh-hour breakdown.
About the showstoppers: In addition to the tap number, the vocalists Zonya Love (as Cole’s mother) and Ruby Lewis (as Betty Hutton, singing Frank Loesser’s “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So”) nail their big numbers and school the audience in Fifties-style professionalism, and Gisela Adisa brilliantly captures the erotic cheek and wonderful feline absurdity of Eartha Kitt.
Edgar Godineaux is the show’s choreographer, and tap and additional choreography are by Jared Grimes. The tight music and vocal arrangements and orchestrations by John McDaniel live up to those by the legendary Nelson Riddle, portrayed upstage with his live band led by David Witham.**
Through March 24.
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*Six months before the premiere of his television show, Cole was attacked and beaten on stage in Birmingham, Alabama.
**In addition to Witham on keyboards, Greg Porée plays guitar, Edwin Livingston is the bassist, and Brian Miller handles drums and percussion.
From top: Dulé Hill as Nat “King” Cole in Lights Out—Nat “King” Cole, Geffen Playhouse, 2019; Hill and Daniel J. Watts as Sammy Davis, Jr.; Gisela Adisa as Eartha Kitt; Ruby Lewis as Betty Hutton and Hill; Watts and Hill; Hill. Photographs by Jeff Lorch.