Playwright Vynnie Meli’s Jim Crow and the Rhythm Darlings draws from a seemingly bottomless wellspring of drama. Winner of the 2009 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award for Georgia playwrights, Rhythm Darlings depicts an all-woman, mostly African-American jazz band and the hostility they face due to their race and gender in WWII-era Mississippi.
At one point, peace-making drummer Vi (Enisha Brewster) explains that the International Rhythm Darlings bears the word “International” in its name because its ranks include women of other races, not just African-Americans. The Darlings’ multiracial makeup isn’t a problem in Jim Crow-era South because, “They’re not Negroes, but they’re not white.” Trouble comes from the band’s newest member, Rhoda (Rachel Bodenstein), a last-minute addition to their tour who unquestionably is white.
The play primarily takes place in a juke joint dressing room as the musicians, including temperamental saxophonist Peggy (DeAndrea Crawford), prepare for their latest gig and try to conceal Rhoda’s true racial identity. Daniel Burnley plays an intrusive, suspicious police officer who oozes a bullying, sexually threatening brand of racial entitlement. Director Betty Hart builds to some undeniably gripping confrontations, although Delesa Sims’ saxophone accompaniment can be problematic. The live music gives the setting immediacy and texture, but having the actors mime playing their instruments makes the production seem unnecessarily artificial.
Jim Crow and the Rhythm Darlings includes a prologue, set apparently a generation earlier, that illustrates the prejudice against female jazz musicians. (The cross-dressing motif connects this production with Food for Fish, another play in Essential’s current festival.) The prologue and the main plot offer intriguing, little-known details about the origins of jazz, but overall the play emphasizes the kind of information and conflicts you’d get in a documentary. When Peggy and Rhoda argue about African-American vs. Jewish oppression, it’s like they’re reading history texts at each other.
Given the play’s brief, 70-minute running time, the social dimension of the drama comes at the expense of character development. Plays such as Athol Fugard’s apartheid-era Blood Knot or August Wilson’s 1920s jazz exposé Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (both about twice as long as Rhythm Darlings) explore the direct and oblique effects of racism to warp character and relationships. Essential Theatre offers an affecting homage to some of the unsung women of jazz, but perhaps the material needs an “extended play” version to do them justice.