A Stew of Black Anger in “The Total Bent”

Total Bent
Vondie Curtis Hall in The Total Bent. Photos: Joan Marcus.

In the Stew-Heidi Rodewald musical The Total Bent, Vondie Curtis Hall, as evangelical preacher Joe Roy, sings this phrase repeatedly in the opening number:

He’s Jesus
And you’re not, Whitey.

The song is about a Christian forgiveness not regularly disseminated by the white population of the US. As extended over several impassioned choruses, it’s indisputably confrontational.

Tuneful and catchy — the quoted phrase is an irresistible hook — it instantly entertains the crowd. It also announces Stew and Rodewald’s provocative bent to The Total Bent, which, like their Passing Strange, bowed at the Public Theater.

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Joe Roy, embodied by Hall with imposing muscularity, is mad as hell at an undeniably racist culture and not going to take it anymore. But he, too, is intolerant, with vicious references to “faggots” and exploitative Jews while venting his fury at an entrenched, recalcitrant American society.

Perhaps Joe Roy’s most prominent aspect is his representation of a very current American theme: After decades of slowly-acquired civil rights, African-Americans clearly can see it hasn’t yielded uncontested equality, and they are increasingly expressing their impatience with it.

Just as actor Joe Morton makes the same angry points about lingering conscious and unconscious prejudice as Dick Gregory in Turn Me Loose (at Off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre, uptown), the character of Joe Roy, in The Total Bent, turns himself loose in a musical so consistently rousing that white audiences may miss the stomping grapes of his wrath. The songs come fast and furious as played by maybe the hottest NYC band working right now: musical director and drummer Marty Beller, trumpeter John Blevins, organ and keyboardist Kenny Brawner, keyboard and harmonicist Damian Lemar, woodwindist Brad Mulholland, Rodewald on keyboards and bass, Stew himself on piano and guitar.

Meantime, even as Joe Roy’s Black rage simmers and boils over (Stew is credited with the text; music is credited to Stew and Rodewald), something else is going on, this of a familiar strain, too: a dad-son drama in which generational differences fracture an already tenuous relationship.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]White audiences may miss the grapes of his wrath.[/pullquote]Whereas Joe Roy employs his incendiary attitudes like a flashy sword, his son, Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), prefers to declare his feelings through crossover music — something less confrontational, more conciliatory. Marty’s idea: to purvey the blues in contemporary musical idioms. And despite Joe Roy’s disdain for the idea, he’s pursuing his goal nevertheless. (If TV watchers notice similarities between the dad-son contentiousness in The Total Bent and on Empire, it’s not coincidental.)

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An English record producer, Byron Blackwell (David Cale), abets Marty’s pursuits. While not initially conversant in ways of the control booth, Blackwell does seem to know raw talent when he spots it, and Marty is happy for a white man to make his stadium-packing dreams come true. Joe Roy objects to all this without satisfaction from Marty, but Marty’s rise to the top doesn’t turn out to be as gratifying as he hoped it would be.

Total Bent
Curtis Wiley, Ato Blankson-Wood, and Jahi Kearse.

Notice that Blackwell, though English, stands in for a record-industry type that was very real, prominent and prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic during the second half of the 20th century. That’s when white executives realized that Black artists could be pitched to white audiences.

Stew is also on to something when Blackwell represents, for example, Leonard and Phil Chess, who founded Chicago’s Chess Records as a home for blues artists. Were men like the Chess brothers merely taking advantage of Black artists, or were they bringing Black audiences to larger, appreciative audiences?

The answer: they were doing both. Was it altruistic? That’s your call.

Nor is Blackwell entirely the mustachioed villain here: he does have streaks of humanity. At one point, he asks, “Why do Blacks still believe in God?” It’s a question that couldn’t be more pertinent for our present moment, and it gets to the core of The Total Bent — the underlying question not yet asked of a people whose very existence is the reason they have not achieved, in America, their full due respect.

For his part, Stew then stops just short of taking the next step in this discussion. That would have been to balk at the fact that the savior in whom many African-Americans believe was a white man, and that the religion inspired by that white man was sold to them — perhaps it would be better to say imposed on them — also by white men. To the contrary, in The Total Bent there’s much invoking of Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene. There’s even a brief suggestion that Marty is a Jesus figure.

Total Bent
Ato Blankson-Wood and David Cale.

Director Joanna Settle gathers many worthy elements for this work, beginning with the cast and the musicians. (In an unusual move, the musicians are listed as cast members, which may be because they’re visible upstage.)

The solid Hall and sinuous Blankson-Wood, for much of the performance front and center, give very different but constantly arresting performances. Hall a seething man of the world; Blankson-Wood is a wraith-like Ariel for the Madison Square Gardens of the entertainment business. (Gabriel Berry dresses them appropriately.) Cale keeps the ambitious Blackwell on an acceptable keel. Jahi Kearse and Curtis Wiley, respectively, as Andrew and Abee, offer different pairs of back-up dancers, including in the final sequence, executing David Neumann’s choreography beside Blankson-Wood.

Set designer Andrew Lieberman arranges the stage to look like a plushly carpeted cross between a recording studio and a hotel lobby. That’s until — to accommodate Marty’s triumphant performance, ostensibly before thousands — stagehands rush in to add glossy raised runways. The lighting designer is Thom Weaver; the crucial sound design is by Obadiah Eaves and Sten Severson.

A little more than a year ago, Hamilton opened at the Public Theater. The Total Bent may not turn out to be as big a hit (what could be?), but in its scrutiny of a country founded on human rights that has yet to fulfill its promise, Stew and Rodewald’s musical drama is a strong and profound companion piece.