Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe made plans to close its 2022-23 season this month with something of a one-two punch: a pair of world premiere one-act biographical plays stemming from the theater’s New Playwrights Series. One hit lands better than the other.
You may guess from the boxing analogy that half of this duo focuses on a legendary boxing champion: Muhammad Ali. That’s the second part of the evening. The first tells the story of actress Nell Carter. And the Carter portion is more successful overall.
That’s mostly because Carter’s life presents more of a straightforward show biz story. While Carter, played by Tarra Conner jones, who also wrote From Birmingham to Broadway, had tragedies and obstacles to overcome on her rise to stardom in shows like Ain’t Misbehavin,’ her path is easier to navigate for viewers than Ali’s. His life touched on other worlds besides boxing—politics, religion, civil rights, etc.—in a way that’s pretty hard to capture onstage in just an hour or so.
To start with Carter, though, we meet her (where else?) backstage in her dressing room (actually, after she belts out the opening number “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues” to get the show rolling). In a fairly traditional way, jones lets us see the actress from her beginnings in segregated Birmingham, through a traumatic rape that changed her life, to her determination to make it big in New York and, eventually, Hollywood with the sitcom Gimme a Break!
Jones, a powerhouse vocalist in her own right, here tailors her voice to match more with Carter’s higher-pitched style, but it’s never just an impersonation. We feel Carter’s highs and lows, from becoming a hit on Broadway to her apparent inability to find such happiness offstage in her love life. Along the way, we’re treated to renditions of tunes like “Black and Blue,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “Find Out What They Like,” backed by music director John Bronston and two other musicians. Jones has all the tools in her kit to range from vulnerable to bawdy to fierce, and she deserves the applause she receives at the end of her set.
Darius Autry, playing Ali in Float like a Butterfly, deserves a lot of applause, too. While he doesn’t resemble the champ much, he’s got the cadence of Ali’s rhyming speeches down, and he’s more than able to work his way around the ring that serves as his set. (It’s part of a museum exhibit devoted to his life in the setup for the show, created by Nate Jacobs and written by his brother Michael.) You’ve got to be impressed by his ability to shadow box and speed jump rope without losing his place in the script, or his stamina.
But Float like a Butterfly is sometimes hard to follow as it makes his way back and forth through his history, starting with him as a young boxer in Louisville, Kentucky, and working his way to the man Ali evolved to be over the decades, one willing to face prison time to avoid the Vietnam War-era draft and to stand up for his changing religious beliefs as he converted to Islam. It’s a complex tale, and it can feel disjointed here, although it benefits from speeches lifted from his real-life appearances, and, at times, from the music composed by Derric Gobourne Jr. and Henry Washington and recorded by EJ Porter.
There’s no doubt of Autry’s commitment or talent, though, and the same goes for jones. The shows run together through May 29; for tickets, call (941) 366-1505 or go to westcoastblacktheatre.org.