From the

'Bricktop' is music and history

Playwright Ramsey found his material in a forgotten singer's trunk

 

J. Wynn Rousuck
Theater

January 18, 2007

 

You might say that the musical Bricktop was born in a trunk. The trunk had belonged to an African-American singer named Ada "Bricktop" Smith and was purchased a few years ago by the library at Atlanta's Emory University, which is where native Baltimore playwright Calvin A. Ramsey saw it.

Ramsey had never heard of the singer, but when he started going through her trunk, he says, "I saw all these telegrams from Cole Porter, letters from Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen. And I said, 'Who is this woman who would have heard from all of these people?'"

The answer has turned into a musical, which opened a five-week run at MetroStage in Alexandria, Va., last night. Co-written by Ramsey and director Thomas W. Jones, Bricktop traces the career of the singer, who ran a cabaret in Paris for four decades beginning in 1924, and also examines her friendship with singers Mabel Mercer and Alberta Hunter.

The title character, Ramsey discovered in his research, was called "Bricktop" because "she was a light-skinned black woman with red hair and freckles." His research also led him to the oldest adopted son of Josephine Baker (who came to Paris a year after Bricktop) and to Langston Hughes' memoir, The Big Sea, which has a chapter on Bricktop.

The music in the show ranges "from Eubie Blake to Cole Porter to [Johnny] Mercer and up to the music in 1984," the year Bricktop, Hunter and Mercer all died.

Although Bricktop is Ramsey's first musical, it's not the first play for this 56-year-old former insurance agent. Concentrating on what he calls "unknown pages in African-American history," Ramsey's other scripts include The Green Book, about a guidebook listing places where black travelers were welcome in the South during the Jim Crow era, and Shermantown, Baseball, Apple Pie, and the Klan, a play whose depiction of Ku Klux Klan meetings provoked controversy in 2005 when readings were canceled by a Stone Mountain, Ga., theater.

His most recent project is a children's book, The Last Mule of Gee's Bend, about the mule that pulled the Rev. Martin Luther King's casket to its resting place in Atlanta. And, having gotten a taste of musicals, Ramsey has already begun thinking about another - a show about the music of Baltimore, from Eubie Blake to Dru Hill.

Bricktop runs through Feb. 25 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria, Va. Tickets are $35-$40. Call 800-494-8497 or visit metrostage.org.