Not many people know the story of the ‘Café Society’, but they should!

For example, when I asked people what they thought the ‘Café Society’ was, I got an array of different answers. One of them was ‘people who met up to go to cafes together’. Another being ‘something women went to, to socialise and plan to aid during the war while their husbands and sons fought’ and my personal favourite was ‘not sure but it sounds pretty lit though’.

But, I would like to take this moment to explain that ‘Café Society’ had nothing to do with women but rather everything to do with racial integration and was definitely ‘pretty lit’.

The ‘Café Society’ nightclub was founded in 1938 by the genius Barney Josephson who promoted African American talent. Although black performers were current during this era, many bars opened their doors to black performers and socialites, however would turn ‘regular’ black people away at the door. Josephson’s club was the first to mix black and white people and present them as, more or less, equals. He once said: ‘I wanted a club where black and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front’.

I had never really considered myself a jazz fan, but I think that may have been because I did not fully understand it, due to my age. People my age have not grown up with this genre, not to the full extent like some of the older members of the audience. However, this show made me see and understand why jazz has a place in people’s hearts over the world. It’s passionate, it’s personal and at times, it can and will break your heart.

This show has so many soulful and beautiful covers of songs originally sung by historical jazz legends like Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Ethel Waters. The vocals by Ciyo Brown, Vimala Rowe, Judi Jackson and China Moses are unlike anything I have ever heard before. The voices behind the original songs are tough acts to follow, but this cast does not let a single person in that room down and delivers a stunning performance. Bravo to the cast!

I would also like to take this moment to congratulate and praise Peter Gerald on his fantastic multi-rolling in this show. Portraying a journalist trying to write an expose on the club, a bartender within the club and Josephson himself, his incredible narration skills and comic timing add more depth to this show and present three different attitudes towards the club and its story.

But there is one song, one moment that tears at the heartstrings and makes you realise why this show was so important. ‘Strange Fruit’, sung in the show by the incomparable and spectacularly talented Rowe, catches the attention of the whole room and leaves us in awe when the lights go down, and the show ends. Originally sung in 1949 by Billie Holiday at ‘Café Society’, this song commented on and fought against racism in America and, in particular, the horrific lynching of black people during this time.

The lyrics of this song, written by Abel Meeropol (under the pseudonym Lewis Allan), do not hold back on the graphic images of lynching. The song includes lyrics about “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze” and “here is fruit for the crows to pluck”, leaving audience members stunned and their stomachs in knots. The emotional and very believable performance given by Rowe leaves the audience (and certainly me!) with goosebumps and also sent shivers up my spine, on more than one occasion. This song, in many ways, becomes the main symbol in the show to convey to the audience the alienation felt by the black community in American society. But ‘Café Society’ provides the pleasure and promise of interracial connections and relationships free of any threat of punishment for it. When it closed in 1949, what was lost was the sense of security and sanctuary.

It should also be pointed out that the back of the program states that “Café Society Swing is dedicated to the memory of Barney Josephson (1902-1988) and Billie Holiday (1915-1959)”. Well, they would be proud to see that their legacy has lived on in this terrific show directed by Christian Durham, featuring the musical direction and the amazing piano playing of Alex Webb.

Even if you are not an avid jazz fan, I would encourage anyone to see Café Society Swing. It tells a story that should be heard in classrooms and history books everywhere.

For ten years, there was one place in the whole of New York that did not scrutinise people because of the colour of their skin. Everyone was accepted in that room and that is why ‘everybody loves Barney’. He stood up and fought for the people that needed it, no matter the cost.

We should all consider taking a page out of Josephson’s book.

Café Society Swing is playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 16 June 2018

Photo: Craig Brough