"Meet Me at the Dunbar" is more than a title song — it's a gateway into the storied cultural and architectural Los Angeles landmark that springs vividly to life in the world premiere of "The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel" from Robey Theatre Company, in association with Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Under Ben Guillory's sharp-eyed direction, Levy Lee Simon's four-part docudrama traces the nationally prominent Central Avenue luxury hotel's heyday during the 1930s and '40s, when its opulence offered a first-class answer to Jim Crow laws that prohibited even the most illustrious black Americans from staying in hotels that catered to whites.
FOR THE RECORD
6:25 p.m. Nov. 26, 2014: An earlier version of this post referred to actress Tiffany Coty as Tiffany Cota.
Simon's narrative opens in 1931, when new owner Lucius Lomax (Dwain A. Perry) renames the hotel in honor of the prolific post-Civil War author, Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose ghostly on-stage presence (Julio Hanson) surveys and comments on his cultural legacy throughout the play.
A tough-minded but benevolent wheeler-dealer, Lomax fights conservative community opposition to establish the West Coast equivalent of the Cotton Club at the Dunbar.
His ambitions are fully realized as a parade of historical luminaries visit the hotel — Robey Theatre's namesake Paul Robeson (Jah Shams), Duke Ellington (Eddie Goines) California Eagle publisher-editor Charlotta Bass (Cydney Wayne Davis) and fiery gadfly writer Chester Himes (Sammie Wayne IV).
The high point of the 1938 segment is the rivalry between singer-actresses Ethel Waters (Elizabeth June) and Lena Horne (Tiffany Coty) that culminates in their hilarious feuding rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown."
Spotlighting the Dunbar's role as a site for political debate as well entertainment, the 1941 segments focus on America's entry into World War II and the moral quandary it presents as black people are asked to risk their lives for a society in which they cannot even participate as equals — heartbreaking events later that year show the high price of their patriotism.
The epic scope of Simon's narrative is somewhat limited by its sheer number of historical figures — most of whom could easily merit their own play.
The impressive 20-member cast makes the most of brief stage time to depict a wide range of personalities, although their full significance may not be apparent without further background (fortunately only a Google click away).
To thread the different time periods, Simon employs a fictionalized hotel staff, and his solution to continuing these characters into the 2008 epilogue is shrewd and elegant.
Informative and engaging, this underappreciated chapter of our local history is portrayed with panache and grace.