The Nate Holden Performing Arts Center on Washington Blvd in Los Angeles is now presenting a revival of Five Guys Named Moe, by Clarke Peters, and starring Obba Babatundé. The premise of this piece is a sampling of the formidable works of Louis Jordan.
If you’re not familiar with the name, Louis Jordan is credited with many accomplishments – The founder of Jump Jazz, the Grandfather of Rock and Roll, and one of the biggest names in music through much of the mid 20th century. It is said, he was the first
But this is more than your standard, “here’s a juke box musical with a bunch of songs wrapped in some overreaching story”. Five Guys Named Moe is a deeply reflective journey of a man coming to grips with his own values.
I wanted to get a sense of why Five Guys Names Moe should be brought back to the stage. To accomplish that, I had the privilege to speak with Clarke Peters as to his reflections on the play and what was the impetus for creating the work. In the rest of his life, Clarke is well-known as an actor, singer, director, currently working on the Hulu series, Chance, and perhaps most notable for his role as Detective Lester Freamon on the HBO series The Wire.
Mr. Peters was first exposed to theatre in High School, and broke on to the stage as a member of “The Tribe” in a Paris production of Hair, back in the 70’s. He stepped in as a replacement for his brother who “missed a show”. From there he spent a number of years on London’s West End performing and later collaborating on a number of musicals based upon great African American composers-performers. Clarke says,
“I kept hearing Louis Jordan’s music in my head,”
By 1990, this had culminated as world premiere of Five Guys Names Moe, at Theatre Royal Stratford East, and which was then mounted on Broadway in 1992.
In conversation, Clarke spoke of this piece being originally meant as entertainment, a boost of music of Louis Jordan, and something that people would walk away from feeling good. In the intervening years since its first mounting, Clarke has come to see that there is a subtle underlying commentary on culture.
“Only in hind sight do I see it, (Five Guys Names Moe) in that regard.”
Going on, he says,
“It is not up to me to determine the cultural impact of Five Guys, that’s up to the director’s vision and the audiences’ willingness to listen.”
But there is the fact that this play addresses a number of cultural observations. How men talk to each other.
“Brothers don’t normally talk to each other about feelings, especially about how we treat our sisters. It’s about a sense of how we can be forgetful and flighty and disrespectful, in the end, this is a love story.”
Clarke further adds,
“Audiences can come for the entertainment, they can come for the cultural impact, maybe they want to just come for the music. See the show, see what you take away.”
Obba Babatunbé, who plays Nomax, the embodiment of Jordan, is also an accomplished actor, singer, dancer with a deep resume in theatre, film and television going back to the 1970’s. When asked what prompted him to participate in this production, he said.
“it was a simple as a phone call from my brother, friend, Wren Brown. He was the first person to welcome me to Los Angeles in 1990, and we have since had the pleasure of working together on many projects, including the recent production of Fraternity, which was also at done by Ebony Theatre Company.”
Personal loyalty and connection aside, what is it about the role of Nomax?
“It’s a human story, it transcends time, and speaks to the human condition. It’s about a pain we all feel, our views on relationships and the values we don’t realize till we miss them. Nomax, he smokes too much, he drinks too much, he’s serially unfaithful, and then he feels alone.”
I then asked about the relevance and impact of first, Five Guys Names Moe, and then The Ebony Theatre Company.
“I became involved with theatre while attending Brooklyn College. In high school, I began writing poetry. It was very reflective of our times, culturally, politically. In college, I found it easy to turn my poems into one person or two person plays.”
“This gave me access to theatre, and by turn involvement with the National Black Theatre in New York. From there, the opportunity to work with some incredible artists, and learned that our stories, our perspective were important. I discovered purpose and community at the same time. Five Guys happens to capture that in its essence. So it speaks very much to the current state of cultural presentation.”
In regards to the play in this incarnation,
“This cast is wonderful, talented, dedicated, makes the experience all that more special, and worthy of attendance.”
“Theatre has the power to reflect who we are… what we see on stage is our experiences. If we want to impact our community, we have to do so by example, show the pitfalls, the regrets, the victories.”
And in regard to the Ebony Theatre, Obba goes on to say,
“This is a world class company, bringing together some of the most talented artists available. And they do it in spite of the lack of funding. The look and feel of the production and facility will rival anywhere, be it the Taper, The Geffen, or any Broadway house.”
With the compassion and dedication of two such artists, one can easily see the magic working. Throw in the vision of Wren Brown, the artistic Director of The Ebony Theatre, and his vision and passion for theatre makes his choice in mounting for the 25th Anniversary of the US opening of Five Guys Names Moe seem very wise indeed.