The Top of Bravery, showing at Richmond Triangle Players through February 5, is a thoughtful and insightful learning experience, now more than ever. The play opens a dialogue between the audience and the actors about race in the modern era by exploring the way African Americans were portrayed in Vaudeville performances.
The writing of playwright and actor Jeremy V. Morris (who stars in the lead role as Bert Williams) is markedly culturally aware. The narrative relies on the history of Bert Williams and his rise to international success, employing authentic songs and dances as historic proof of Vaudeville’s racial overtones. Throughout the play, the company bombards the captive audience with truth via eager performances of the cakewalk and songs like “Jonah Man.”
Bert Williams’ story is a side of history seemingly forgotten. And in The Top of Bravery, there seems to be no limit to the research done on Williams’ life. Actor Jeremy Morris is able to make Williams’ story come to life through little but heartfelt storytelling, a highlight of his performance. The actors, each of whom rotated through various roles, were the reason the narrative came to life. The struggles portrayed in Williams’ wife, Lottie, played spectacularly by Katrinah Carol Lewis, feel as relatable as any relationship drama, although the conflict is one unique to Williams’ family.
This mixture of minstrel and vaudeville performances is, foremost, a lesson in an art form which would soon be relegated to the past (with good reason). The use of William’s repertoire is important to the understanding of just how one would view a vaudeville show from that era. The actors provide a statement worth making in singing these, as the songs are bookended with hilarious explanations of the songs’ irony. It is through the message of unabashed racial prejudice, sometimes painfully present in the musical numbers, that audience members can learn best just how crucial an awareness of Jim Crow-era America is to understanding the current state of race-relations.
The themes revolve around the importance of representation, fearlessness, and legacy. For the artists at the heart of this play, those were crucial to how they lived life. As the theater stars became more popular despite the subjugation of African-Americans at the time, that tension produced a conflict like no other. The actors in this play capture those feelings precisely. Putting on a show to make people laugh while those same people would wish you harm on the street is an act that only professionals could pull off. The Top of Bravery displays an acute knowledge of that tension. Though masquerading as a biographical work, the show brings that conflict to a boiling point.
America’s ongoing and important discussion regarding race relations is incomplete without taking in the ideas presented from this play. The partnership of the African American Repertory Theater of Virginia with the Quill Theatre resulted in a work that provides a lesson and a laugh in each viewing.
This was my first show at Richmond Triangle Players. The Top of Bravery’s intimate, confessional-style storytelling was best-suited for the small, black-box theater it inhabited. The atmosphere was almost that of a real speakeasy or jazz club of the twenties and thirties, with cocktails flowing out of the bar and patrons even dressed in coat and tails for the premiere (a tradition I hope continues, as it adds a great deal to the play’s setting).
The Top of Bravery depicts a time period rife with racial struggle, and therefore, includes sensitive thematic material and language. Though not a show for the whole family, high school students with an interest in history and the performing arts would do well to experience this production. There are several matinees and school performances scheduled. See The Top of Bravery through February 5 at Richmond Triangle Players in Scott’s Addition. Click here for showtimes and tickets.