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‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ musical celebrates Fats Waller

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ musical celebrates Fats Waller
Becky Bass in rehearsal. PHOTO: MALCOLM CLARK

The croons of the Harlem Renaissance will soon be drifting across Cambridge’s Central Square Theater stage in a new production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’ — The Fats Waller Musical.” Produced by The Nora@Central Square Theater in collaboration with The Front Porch Arts Collective and Greater Boston Stage Company, the show celebrates the sound and soul of the period.

The musical revue is less about narrative storytelling and more about evoking the feeling of the Harlem Renaissance through classic songs by Fats Waller such as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint is Jumping” and of course, “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” The show can be experienced May 1-30 at the Central Square Theater and June 9-26 at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham.

“It’s so much about a specific time and place and culture and community, all through the lyrics and the music of Fats Waller,” says Maurice Emmanuel Parent, the show’s director and choreographer. “There are journeys in this through song, and discoveries.”

Anthony Pires, Jr. in rehearsal for “Ain’t

The production includes five cast members, here performed by six actors. The actors don’t play characters, per se — they are referred to by their own names — but they each embody a different characteristic of Waller.

Of course it wasn’t all song and dance in the first half of the 20th century. Performers of color during this period would still have been subject to strict segregation laws at venues, and experienced significant racism even during this heyday of culture, music, clubs and ideas. Parent alludes to that in the show. If the song being performed was a hit from a segregated venue, the actors won’t come near the audience, as they wouldn’t have been allowed to at the time.

“It’s something important to us to talk through and make sure we’re honoring what our ancestors went through that were living at this time,” says Parent. “This is all about the legacy we get to be a part of as a Black cast and as a Black director.”

Though these heavy undertones run through the play, joy is the central thread celebrated in these musical numbers. Waller was known as a boisterous and joyful fixture of the music scene at this time, always eager to celebrate life, raise a glass and croon a tune in a Harlem club. Though “Ain’t Misbehavin’” isn’t a biographical play about the composer, it channels Waller’s energy and joie de vivre.

“It’s an opportunity, at a time when it’s so common for Black folks on the theatrical stage to have to engage with oppression through the lens of trauma and the pain of it, this is actually centering Black joy and excellence,” says Parent. “It stays with you, it arms you, as we face the times that we’re living in.”