Evan Pappas: Feeling That “Cafe Society Swing”

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Charenee Wade in Cafe Society Swing. Photos by Carol Rosegg.
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Charenee Wade in Cafe Society Swing. Production photos by Carol Rosegg.

“The Wrong Place for the Right People.” It sure is a provocative line and if you didn’t know a thing about its origins, chances are you might still want to know where that wrong place is. After all, subversive is a lot sexier than conforming.

But the line does have clear origins: in Greenwich Village at the Cafe Society, generally acknowledged as the first racially integrated nightclub in America. It was the advertising slogan of Barney Josephson, who opened the club in 1938 to showcase African-American talent and also stick it to the rich, louche, inestimably clueless haute monde of the era.

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Allan Harris.
Allan Harris.

By dint of Josephson’s success — his Cafe Society Uptown opened two years later — the list of artists who appeared there reads like a census of mid-century jazz, comedy and theater. It was at Cafe Society that Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit.” Lena (as in Horne), Sarah (as in Vaughn) and even Carol (as in Channing) popped up often, but the full roster is too immense to Count (as in Basie).

Yet the Cafe Society story is like many other American success tales: it’s dizzying rise to the top was soon followed by a dizzying fall. For while no one could dispute Josephson’s eye for talent, his ear for political satire infuriated the powerful, so when the Red Scare turned American minds terrified and paranoid in the late 1940s, “The Wrong Place for the Right People” became “The Wrong Place,” period.

Until now, that is, at least in the imagination of writer-musician Alex Webb, whose Cafe Society Swing opened on Dec. 21 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., 212-279-4200) for a run through Jan. 4. For tickets, click here.

Cafe Society Swing tells the whole story of the club, more or less, and there’s a hot eight-piece jazz ensemble to evoke those heady and halcyon days of decades ago. Directed by Simon Green, Cafe Society Swing also stars veteran and beloved actor Evan Pappas, in his first appearance on a New York stage since 2007, when he was injured in a car accident in Phoenix while on tour with a play. (The production also features Webb on piano, Mimi Jones on bass, Shirazette Tinnin on drums, Allan Harris on guitar, Camille Thurman on tenor sax, Bill Todd on alto sax and clarinet, Benny Benack III on trumpet, Brent White on trombone and the vocal capacities of Cyrille Aimeé and Charenee Wade.)

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And now, 5 questions Evan Pappas has never been asked:

Cafe8What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I was doing a show and having trouble making a role work. I was working way too hard and really pushing. Nothing was working until I just told myself to “relax and let the audience come to you.” So the next night after the show, someone from the audience actually asked, “What did you do to make the audience come to you?” What a lesson and I loved that validation.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Now that you’ve been on Broadway I guess you’ll get a soap opera?” Or: “Did you grow taller for that role?”

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What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Do you avoid taking high-fiber supplements before you go onstage?”

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We can imagine how Alex Webb, as a playwright, uses plot and dialogue to convey the feel of the time at Cafe Society. But as an actor, how do you make sure your work strikes the right tone, sets the right mood and intrinsically feels like a performance that is really in the era in which the piece takes place?
I ask a lot of questions and watch old clips if possible. When memorizing, I try to make the script work for me and make it a living performance. I like the moment to moment of it all. I’ve always connected to the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, so this piece is great fun to explore. I knew so little about Cafe Society and Barney Josephson. Fascinating. And I love what a costume can do. If the clothes are good, you just feel transported.

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headshotWhat is your relationship to jazz as an art form, a genre? What about jazz feels very natural and instinctive to you, and what about jazz still seems wonderfully enigmatic and mysterious?
My father had a great love of jazz. It was always on the car radio growing up. He boasted about going to high school with Vince Guaraldi. So imagine what that was like for a kid with Charlie Brown and all seeing Guaraldi’s name on the credits and hearing his compositions. Being a singer, I always loved the vocal sounds of jazz: Ella, Sarah, Nancy Wilson, Billie, Nat, Mel Torme, Louis Armstrong, you name it. I am so attracted to their improv qualities, some of it rehearsed, but still organic. I love the clever, unexpected, unpredictable way that jazz has.

Bonus question:

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You’ve had a long road back to performing in New York since your accident in 2007. How are you feeling? In case you didn’t know, you’ve been very missed.
After the accident and all the healing (which I refer to as the most horrific yet glorious year of my life), I wasn’t sure what I could handle physically on stage as an actor. My other passion of directing was taking over and has thankfully been quite successful. So I lost track of acting. When my friend, director Simon Green, who I did Follies and Merrily We Roll Along with in London way back in ’88, approached me about Cafe Society Swing, at first I was incredibly apprehensive. But then I said, “Oh, what the hell, Simon and I get to hang out together again and it’s a fantastic project.” The community has been so supportive and it is deeply flattering that “I’ve been missed.” It’s quite humbling. I hope it’s like riding a bike.