Since its creation, in 1975, Kuntu Repertory Theatre has often showcased the work of company co-founder Rob Penny. He wrote more than 30 plays while also serving on the University of Pittsburgh faculty. Five years after his death, Kuntu artistic director Vernell A. Lillie seeks to honor Penny by reviving his play Clean Drums. The script focuses on 82-year-old, Pittsburgh-born drummer Joe Harris, who rhythmized many jazz greats during a long, famed career, and who taught at Pitt for 14 years.
Kuntu here delves into history and tradition and, as often, fosters a sense of community, its audiences coming together to experience faithful collective consciousness. But Penny's play and the production look like a meandering, unfocused verbal and musical jam session in which unsteadily sung American jazz standards and pop songs do no one credit. Moreover, the dialogue and Lillie's staging often seem to emphasize contention and dissing instead of harmony.
In a previous production, Harris performed as himself. This time, Dennis Garner (uncredited in the opening night's program book) has the role. Harris should be delighted and honored; Garner shines with drumming talent and has an appealing, attractive stage presence. However, around him -- for three hours -- the ostensible goal of telling us about Harris himself gets lost in frequent riffs about jazz history, racism and sexism.
Penny's program notes say the script quotes Harris' own words, but such fragments of dialogue don't amount to a biography. And confusion abounds. For example, Harris seems to have an alter ego on stage, "Little Joe," who's played by an actor who doesn't resemble Garner in any way. It also appears that Harris-led rehearsals are meant to be scene settings, yet contradictions emerge when thoroughly costumed and choreographed women, unsummoned, take over the stage as singers.
Oddly, several of the singers meant to personify Billie Holiday inhabit the stage simultaneously. Meanwhile, talented, sturdy singer Les Howard is called "Billy Eckstine" (another Pittsburgher) -- yet some dialogue refers to Eckstine as if he were not actually there on stage. And Harris speaks about "white dancer" Paul Draper, who is then represented by black tap virtuoso Donte Montgomery, in a dynamic turn, after which Harris recounts what Draper said to him, Montgomery himself not having spoken a word.
Many of the women singers garbled familiar lyrics, but the six-member band, led by reed player James Alston (likewise uncredited in the program), continued playing well, as if everything were going fine. Among them, trumpet player Ed Skirtich stood out.
In all, longtime Kuntu supporters deserve something more respectful of their intelligence and taste.
Clean Drums continues through Feb. 7. University of Pittsburgh Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave. (seventh floor), Oakland. 412-624-7298 or www.kuntu.org