THEATER REVIEW: “Raisin’ The Rent” and singing the blues

When the landlord came knocking on the door in 1920s Chicago, people shy of rent money threw “raise the rent” parties.

Calvin Manson, the multitalented founder of Ira Aldridge Repertory Players, hearkens back to that phenomenon as theme for his latest show. In keeping with the theme, Manson is collecting each night – not for the rent, but for a different charity.

The setup of “Raisin’ The Rent” is that Mr. Kelly, owner of the eponymous Mister Kelly’s nightclub, plans to shut the place down unless manager Papa Du (Carl Overstreet) can raise enough money in 12 hours.

So Papa Du calls on his friends, singing greats Billie Holiday (Anasa Johnson), Nina Simone (Janice Edwards) and Ruth Brown (Janet Polite) to contribute their talents to the effort. Dancer Maria Mendenhall-Lopez adds to the visuals.

Manson wrote and directed the dinner show, a revue that plays through June 5 in the Lafayette Hotel’s Mississippi Room (dinner optional).

It’s a bluesy show with some R&B, pop and jazz tossed in, ably backed by a fine five-man band led by music director Stephen Gooden.

The ladies are the stars, but Overstreet and Herb Sims (as Papa Du’s friend Silky Slim) get into the act as well, especially in the second act. Sims scores with “I Was Cool;” Overstreet with the ballad “At Last.”

Edwards, who wowed audiences in IARP’s previous show “Nina,” comes through again, raising the roof (if not the rent) with the raucous “Mississippi God Damn” and the poignant “The Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore.”

Anasa Johnson shows Billie Holiday’s range with the charming “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and her signature anti-racism anthem, “Strange Fruit.”

Newcomer Janet Polite (first-time actor, longtime singer) impresses as singer Ruth Brown on songs like “Five, Ten, Fifteen Hours.”

Manson weaves a bit of history into the show as well, reminding us that Brown was the first female singer to sell a million records, and that when Holiday played the South, she was not allowed to use the bathroom in the club where she worked but had to go outside.

That’s reason enough to sing the blues, which these ladies do with ease and conviction.

The details

“Raisin’ The Rent” plays through June 5 at the Lafayette Hotel’s Mississippi Room, 2223 El Cajon Blvd., North Park.

Friday and Saturday at 8 pm (6:30 for dinner); Sunday at 3 pm (2 for dinner).

For tickets, call (619) 2832-4574 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.