By John Lyle Belden
It’s fascinating to see Clerical Error Productions expand its offerings beyond an annual parody of a popular offbeat British sitcom. Case in point: company Creative Consultant and Vaudeville Coordinator James Benn just brought to the District Theatre cabaret stage, “In the Life: Songs of Gay Harlem.”
Accompanied by longtime local pianist Carl Hines, Benn introduces himself as Dr. Tyrell Leviticus Worthington, our instructor in American History – to be more precise, American Black LGBTQ History.
Moments later he is settled on his seat by the piano, enlightening us about “The Life” (code for LGBTQ culture at the time) in 1920s and ‘30s Harlem neighborhoods of New York. As we quickly discover, many of the jazz, blues and early pop icons are also Gay Icons, some surprisingly out and proud. The names include Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Clara Smith, Billy Strayhorn, Ethel Waters, and the legendary Ma Rainey. With his warm earnest delivery, and the perfect beat popping out of his fingers, Benn puts the “easy” in speakeasy, entertaining in a way so everyone in the packed room feels his personal touch.
Also, you come away knowing a bit more than you did going in. An evening with these classics could have you itching to find the records yourself – provided you’ve got something that plays 78s.
Keep an eye and ear out for his next show – follow “James Solomon Benn” on Facebook and LinkedIn – and check out ClericalErrorProductions.com for upcoming productions, including the Beckett play “Happy Days” with CEP founder Kate Duffy, Feb. 23-26 at the District Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.