C Gerod Harris
Between the 1950s and 1960s, Harlem Renaissance man Langston Hughes penned numerous stories featuring his popular urban everyman, Jesse B Semple.
Known as Simple to his friends, Jesse was an easygoing, say-it-as-he-sees-it kind of guy who spent his time hanging out with a variety of recognisable Harlem characters. He first appeared in Hughes’ newspaper columns in the Chicago Defender and the New York Post, then in a series of books, and then, in 1957 collaborating with David Martin, Hughes adapted Simple’s world for the stage and Simply Heavenly was the result.
Josette Bushell-Mingo’s acclaimed Young Vic production successfully transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in 2004. It’s the ideal space for Hughes’ play, a 400 seat studio within the recently refurbished Whitehall Theatre, it has an intimate feel yet is also spacious enough for the big musical moments. Decked out as Harlem drinking den Paddy’s Bar, the cleverly designed set is wonderfully atmospheric, shabby but cosy and welcoming.
As befits his everyman status, Jesse’s problems are pretty familiar ones, he’s beset by money worries and women troubles. Still struggling to raise the funds he needs for a divorce from his first wife in Baltimore, Simple is torn between his love for prim, good girl Joyce and the ample charms of the vampish Zarita. It’s a fittingly simple dilemma that provides the main narrative thread of the play. But though the social resonance of Simple’s plight may have faded the music still hits the spot, a joyous blend of blues, jazz and R&B performed by Simple’s cohorts at Paddy’s. The songs are really where the spirit of the show lies and they don’t disappoint.
Simple’s world is populated by memorable characters: the independent, straight-talking Miss Mamie and her gravel throated suitor Melon, liquor-happy Arcie, beaten-down musician Gitfiddle and Simple’s good friend the educated and softly spoken writer, Ananais Boyd. The cast are uniformly excellent; playing Miss Mamie, Melanie Marshall has a belting, bluesy voice and, as Melon, HBO stalwart Clarke Peters is equally fantastic. As Jesse, Rhashan Stone has a gangly charm but its Mamie and Melon who provide the true heart of Simply Heavenly, playing off each other with style particularly in their duet Did You Ever Hear The Blues?
Given Hughes’ role as a civil rights campaigner, it’s no surprise that poverty and racial politics are never far below the surface. The Harlem of the 1950s was no longer the bohemian enclave it had been and his characters inhabit sparse, chilly boarding houses, they struggle to hold down jobs and earn a decent living. Hughes was also very concerned about encouraging black Americans to support the US Armed Forces and perhaps eventually integrate them, and he used Simple to voice his opinions on the matter. But though the play has a strong realist streak it’s never long before the production melts once more into song.
Inevitably time has dulled Simply Heavenly‘s bite, and the scenes between Jesse and Joyce do tend to drag – there’s never any real suspense over who he will end up with – but despite that this is still one of the warmest and most consistently enjoyable shows in the West End.