When blacks throw a party, they don’t play!Melvin Van Peebles, Don’t Play Us Cheap, 1972
Like so many multitalented legends of African American culture, including James Baldwin, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison, Melvin Van Peebles maintained a deep love of theater and used the medium to tell stories about Black life. In fact, of all these icons, Van Peebles experienced perhaps the greatest commercial success as a theater artist. Though many cite his filmmaking, specifically his stereotype-busting, renegade 1971 sensation Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, as the primary evidence of his genius, his work for the stage was just as trailblazing. But despite his resounding success on and off Broadway, as well as in regional theaters throughout the United States, Van Peebles’s musicals somehow barely receive a mention in many discussions about his pioneering and multifaceted career. And yet to fully appreciate his role in Black culture, one must understand his connections to the world of theater, particularly the history of Black Broadway musicals.
Van Peebles’s relationship with theater spans decades, beginning at the Dutch National Theatre in the sixties—when he was a student in Amsterdam—where he performed in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage. Van Peebles’s first musical, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, was staged on Broadway the same year as Sweet Sweetback’s big-screen debut, and was equally groundbreaking. Comprising a series of monologues and vignettes about the challenges of Black working-class life in the city, the musical furthered Van Peebles’s efforts to use the arts to protest the racist status quo. These efforts are also seen in the score Van Peebles composed for the musical, which includes songs that anticipated both rap music and the choreopoem—a theatrical form combining poetry, music, dance, and song that Ntozake Shange would introduce in her cutting-edge work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975). Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death was a smash success on Broadway, winning three Drama Desk Awards and a Theatre World Award, and earning Van Peebles Tony nominations for best book of a musical and best original score. (The musical is reportedly headed back to Broadway in 2022 for a revival under the direction of Tony winner Kenny Leon and produced by Van Peebles’s son and frequent collaborator Mario Van Peebles.)
Melvin Van Peebles would continue to work in theater throughout his career, including on Waltz of the Stork (1982), a musical monologue about his life; and Champeen (1983), a musical about the careers of Bessie Smith and Joe Lewis. His musical adaptation of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, The Hood Opera, had a workshop performance with Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber at BRIC in Brooklyn in February 2010, before its premiere outside Paris at the Sons d’Hiver Festival later that month. But of all Van Peebles’s theater work, his 1972 Broadway musical Don’t Play Us Cheap most fully demonstrates his stunning multiplicity as an artist. Conceived for both stage and film, this project reflects the breadth of his artistic vision and commitment to embracing the complexity, rawness, and beauty of Black life.
Don’t Play Us Cheap received nearly as much acclaim as his first Broadway show. It ran for 164 performances and earned Van Peebles two additional Tony nominations, including his second for best book of a musical. The project had an interesting genesis: the idea for the story had been inspired several years earlier by an encounter Van Peebles had with an older Black woman who passed by while he was sitting on his stoop in Lower Manhattan (though he lived in France at the time, he was in New York for a project). After he befriended her, she invited him to a party she was throwing for her niece in Harlem. Van Peebles found the party exquisite and was deeply moved by her kindness and generosity. He began to wonder what would happen if a joyful Harlem Saturday-night party like hers was ruined by an uninvited guest. In his trademark virtuoso manner, Van Peebles first wrote the story as a novel in French, titled La fête à Harlem (1967). He then translated the novel into English before adapting it into a film and musical. He started the project with an eight-week shoot in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then headed with his cast to New York City to begin rehearsals for the Broadway debut. This use of the same actors for both screen and stage versions shows his dexterity in moving between the two mediums. After staging the play, Van Peebles finally released the film in cinemas. It is considered the first Black-directed movie musical of the modern film era.
Van Peebles’s accomplishments in theater should be viewed against the backdrop of Black cultural production, including the rich tradition of Black Broadway musicals that he both drew from and helped shape—stretching back to Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s Shuffle Along in 1921 and forward to Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama—and the heady time for Black culture and politics in which he worked. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Black Arts Movement ushered in a watershed moment for Black literature, music, film, and theater. And while LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka called for Black revolutionary theater based in the Black community, some Black theater artists found themselves embraced by the Great White Way and its supporting institutions. For example, Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1970. When Don’t Play Us Cheap arrived on Broadway two years later, it played alongside other notable works by or featuring Black artists, including Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window; the musical Inner City, which earned Linda Hopkins a Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical; Lost in the Stars, featuring the Tony-nominated Brock Peters; Pippin, which won the legendary Ben Vereen the Tony for best actor in a musical; and Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll’s Tony-nominated musical Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.
What distinguished Don’t Play Us Cheap from other shows in that season was Van Peebles’s outrageous and pointed theatrical sensibility, which lies at the heart of the musical. He presents the cultural and political concerns of working-class Black people with delight and fancy, and none of the sober seriousness of some of his contemporaries. Don’t Play Us Cheap’s playful tone is similar to the biting humor he uses in his film Watermelon Man (1970). In both instances, he offers up incisive social commentary with a wink and a sly smile.
In the film version of Don’t Play Us Cheap that we can see today, we find Van Peebles asking viewers to reflect on the complex themes of love, desire, kindness, and the indefatigability of Black people. This invitation makes the film an intriguing work, despite its over-the-top performances. It features an ensemble of distinct and memorable Black southern migrant characters who are living fully during a precious Saturday-night gathering. Van Peebles celebrates the power, persistence, and passion of what contemporary cultural critics have come to describe as Black joy. Miss Maybell (Esther Rolle) advises her innocent and earnest niece, aptly named Earnestine (Rhetta Hughes), “Ain’t nothing wrong with grabbing a little happiness. You don’t have to take my advice, ’cause I know it don’t look like I have much—but you didn’t see where I started from.” In lines like this, the film insists upon an ethic of Black joy that upholds the value of community; it revels in Black culture in ways similar to the Black Power and Black Arts movements, which marked a turn away from a politics of respectability and toward notions of Black working-class authenticity that embrace the folk and the street.
Don’t Play Us Cheap has a simple plot. Two imps, Trinity (Joe Keyes Jr.) and Brother David (Avon Long), have given their souls to the devil and are determined to gain their wings by doing evil deeds. These two “devil-bats” show up to Miss Maybell’s home hell-bent on ruining the festivities at her Saturday-night party. The duo morph into Black men, Brother Dave dressed in a bright-red zoot suit with devil horns at the shoulder and a red shirt and tie, and Trinity attired in a black patent-leather suit with red trim, a red shirt, and a black ribbon tie. They arrive ready to “break the party.” The pair tries to deplete the supply of liquor, food, music—the holy trinity of party staples—only to learn that the raucous partygoers have endless amounts of everything. Despite their poverty, Miss Maybell and her guests remain generous. While Trinity and Brother Dave represent evil, the majority of the characters embrace love, joy, sentimentality, passion, connection, and community as they share stories of their hard luck and challenges through song. The story centers around whether Trinity’s burgeoning love for Earnestine will turn him away from the devil for good. Considering the lives of Black people in the U.S., who must confront systemic racism and relentless oppression, the film suggests that choosing love and goodness instead of retreating into evil is heroic.
Van Peebles’s approach to Black joy, freedom, and pleasure in Don’t Play Us Cheap is characteristic of all his work, but his flamboyant style is especially evident in his filmmaking here. He avoids the stiffness of other films adapted from stage plays by using special effects, lighting, and entrancing editing techniques to add levity and support the story’s pseudofantasy elements. Although there are some compromised production values, such as low-end special effects and uneven sound, the film remains visually arresting, and the exaggerated costumes and wigs add to its fantastical style. And despite its minimal budget, the film makes full use of the medium through inventive dolly shots, jump cuts, silhouetting, and sound effects. In one scene, Van Peebles captures Trinity’s solo “I’m a Bad Character”—wherein the character attempts to convince himself of his evilness—while the rest of the cast moves behind him, in a broad dolly shot reminiscent of a famous scene from Van Peebles’s first feature-length film, The Story of a Three Day Pass (1967). In the shot from Don’t Play Us Cheap, all the partygoers appear to be floating behind Trinity, like angels drawing him into their joyous fold. Van Peebles uses the dolly again during Brother Dave’s monologue, as he brags about giving his soul to the devil and extols the virtues of hate while other cast members stand still behind him. Van Peebles also uses various special effects and sound to render Trinity and Brother Dave’s transitions from bat to human and, eventually, to cockroach. In these scenes, Van Peebles changes their voices and uses explosives as Brother Dave goes up in smoke, never to be seen in the flesh again. Other notable effects include having characters freeze in the background as the imps plot together, and shooting Brother Dave from below while he basks in a red light or red flames that make him appear even more devilish. Finally, Van Peebles frequently overlaps two different images to make a contrast that is then commented upon in a third shot, such as on the dangers of evil or the inability to stay true to oneself. Van Peebles occasionally uses the same overlapping technique with sound, playing with dissonance and harmony as multiple characters sing their own signature parts, or a single character sings while the others join in a communal chorus.
These effects add another dimension to Van Peebles’s social commentary in the film, which often presents the Black middle class as an impediment, to Black love and Black joy. The arrival of Mr. Johnson (Frank Carey), Mrs. Johnson (Jay Van Leer), and their college-student son, Harold (Nate Barnett)—who challenges Earnestine’s affections for Trinity—introduces these class ideas. The family’s bourgeois values are represented as ridiculous, phony airs that everyone sees through. For instance, Mrs. Johnson wears a fake-fur stole, a long string of pearls, and white gloves, and she tries to use an outsize vocabulary. Mr. Johnson wears an ascot and smokes a cigar, and Harold wears his letterman sweater. Mr. Johnson also boasts that he “works for the government,” although it is soon revealed that he is actually a mail clerk, just like Percy (Thomas Anderson). Mr. and Mrs. Johnson convince their son that he’s too good for Earnestine, who has just arrived from down south. In this musical morality play, Van Peebles suggests that pretension and inauthenticity are nearly as evil and destructive as the devil’s work, at least to the necessary goals of Black community cohesion and self-determination. The eventual revelation that Mr. Johnson is yet another imp in disguise serves to underscore this theme.
These themes have a further musical dimension, as Don’t Play Us Cheap’s expansive soundtrack showcases Van Peebles’s range and strength as a composer. The soundtrack is jam-packed with 1970s soul but also incorporates a wide swath of Black musical genres. Taken together, the songs reveal the community’s struggles and deepest fears as well as their pleasures and desires. For example, modeled after a work song, “The Eight Day Week” relates the labor-intensive lives of these characters in Harlem to the work of a chain gang, while “The Book of Life” is anchored by call-and-response sections featuring the entire cast that underscore the significance of community. The mournful “You Cut Up the Clothes in the Closet of My Dreams” is a rock-inspired pop song about lost love that serves as a warning to lovebirds Earnestine and Trinity about the stakes of romance. Finally, Van Peebles uses “The Washingtons Thing,” a jazz tune, for a montage during which all the guests—even the two devils—feast blissfully on Miss Maybell’s delicious authentic southern cuisine. Van Peebles plays with lyrics that contrast with the sonic codes of these genres to emphasize narrative disjuncture. “Saturday Night,” for one, hearkens to the gospel tradition but espouses secular delights. “I’m a Bad Character” is a send-up of the popular late-nineteenth-century humming quartet tradition that models itself after songs by novelty jazz groups from the early twenties such as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Here, Van Peebles uses vocal sound effects and dissonant sounds to mimic Trinity’s internal struggle over good and evil.
The astonishing feat of creative synchronicity between stage and screen that Don’t Play Us Cheap represents must be credited to the tenacious focus, extraordinary vision, and masterful skill that Van Peebles exhibited as a producer, director, composer, playwright, and filmmaker. In her 1972 review of the play, Black Arts Movement poet Nikki Giovanni exclaimed, “I get a special charge from seeing myself onstage. I take a certain pride that someone could put a set on Broadway of a Harlem apartment with a door that has five locks on it, a mirror in the living room that frames photographs of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, and John Kennedy, with Aretha Franklin peeping through.” This charge of self-recognition is what makes the jubilant film of Don’t Play Us Cheap so affecting and important, in its examinations of Black family, Black community, Black love, and the importance of trying to avoid Black sorrow.
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