While they often worked together to write and record songs, black and white jazz musicians rarely appeared together on stage in the racially divided world of New York in the 1930s and ’40s. So it was with considerable courage that Barney Josephson, the son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia, opened Café Society on Sheridan Square, a color-blind jazz joint that helped to launch the careers of Billie Holiday, Sara Vaughn, Lena Horne, Count Basie and many other legendary African-American musicians.
Now the story of Josephson’s club has itself come to the stage in “Café Society Swing,” a show about the legendary Greenwich Village eatery written by British songwriter Alex Webb.
Directed by Simon Green, “Café Society Swing” features three singers (Charenee Wade, Allan Harris and Cyrille Aimée) and stars Evan Pappas in multiple roles. In the first act, Pappas plays a journalist who is spreading malicious rumors about the club; in the second, he plays a club bartender who gives a more sympathetic, behind-the-scenes perspective. An eight-piece jazz band furnishes the music.
Josephson, who died in 1988, started out as a shoe salesman in New Jersey. After a visit to the Cotton Club in Harlem, where he noticed that Duke Ellington needed to enter through the kitchen, he determined in the late 1930s to create a downtown club where blacks and whites could appear together both on stage and in the audience.
In an interview, Webb told The Jewish Week that Josephson was an “unsung hero” of the music business. Because many nightclubs were controlled by the Mafia, Webb said, Josephson took considerable risks in blazing his own path. But Café Society lasted only a decade; at a time when the Communist Party was well-known for fighting for rights for African Americans, the club’s prominence made it a target when Josephson’s brother, Leon, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.
“Café Society Swing” concludes with a rendition of “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching song made famous by Holiday. Green stages it just as Josephson did, on a mostly dark stage with just a pencil-spotlight on Wade’s face, and with no encore permitted. Ending the show on such a somber note, Webb said, is “not just to leave a sting in the show’s tail. It’s to get people thinking about the power of the ideals that Josephson had,” in aspiring to banish racism from American society.
“Café Society Swing” runs through this Sunday, Jan. 4 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7 p.m, Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m.. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. For tickets, $70, visit ticketcentral.com.