Tribute to a lost Harlem

The rollicking Broadway show ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ takes audiences back to the jazz era of the 1920s and ‘30s.

Ain't Misbehavin' (photo credit: Emmanuel Donny)
Ain't Misbehavin'
(photo credit: Emmanuel Donny)
Yvette Monique Clark is no stranger to playing brash ladies unafraid to say what’s on their minds. In the production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, opening its international tour in Israel this month, Clark plays Nell, one of the five charming and witty entertainers performing all night in a 1920s jazz and blues club.
Based on the music and humor of Harlem Renaissance pianist, comedian and singer Fats Waller, the musical revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ debuted in Manhattan in 1978, and went on to Broadway to win a Tony award for best musical and Drama Desk Award for outstanding musical. Nell Carter, who starred in that first production, also won a Tony for her performance. The show’s title was taken from the 1929 song “Ain’t Misbehavin’” written by Waller.
Produced by Mel Howard and Peter Klein, the show celebrates the African-American music scene that emerged and thrived in the 1920s and ‘30s in Harlem clubs and eventually spread far beyond. The production features a six-piece jazz band to accompany the rowdy and romantic nightclub performers – three women and two men – during their song and jitterbug and swing dance numbers like “How Ya Baby,” “Spreading Rhythm Around” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.”
Dance numbers also feature the popular Harlem dances of the time, like the chicken scratch, the shimmy, the monkey slide and the buzzard lope.
Clark, who has played Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray six times and acted in some 20 shows, says she identifies with Nell, in her first-time performance of the musical.
“She’s brassy and sassy and just a whole bunch of fun,” says Clark in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post from New York. “You get to see at one point of the show a vulnerable part of her. That’s great for me to see... I’m definitely loud and brassy and sassy. I also have a vulnerable side. I completely identify with who she is. She is me.”
Feeling connected to her character’s spirit is essential for Clark in theater.
“Anything you do as a performer, usually a part of it is a part of you. I feel like that’s the only way you can tell the truth, if you can identify with the character you’re playing.”
The 42-year-old singer/actress, born and raised in Brooklyn, says she did not know much about Waller, his music or the Harlem glory days until doing the show, but has since become a fan of the toe-tapping tunes.
“You realize that music that started in that time has a great influence on what we do now,” she says.
Rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues and country music all have their roots in black jazz and blues.
For Clark, who only starred in her first musical nine years ago, visiting Israel feels surreal.
“I’m excited to go to Israel,” she says. “I never thought in my wildest dreams I would go to Istanbul [also on the tour]. Israel wasn’t even on my radar of places to go. When I found out I was going to Tel Aviv I was very excited. A girl from Brooklyn never dreams of going to certain places sometimes.”
From Israel, the show will continue on to Budapest and France.
Before she started auditioning for plays and singing in night clubs and lounges in New York City, Clark worked as an administrative assistant, after graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School and getting an education at the school of hard knocks, as she puts it. But she has wanted to be a singer since junior high school when she knew she had the talent.
“It’s been an absolute blessing to be doing what I‘ve always dreamed of doing,” she says.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ runs October 17, October 18 at 8 p.m., October 19 at 1 p.m. and October 20 at 9 p.m. at Tel Aviv Mishkan for artists Habama, October 21 at 8:30 p.m. at the Haifa Auditorium and October 22 at 8:30 p.m. at the Jerusalem Theater. Tickets for Tel Aviv can be bought the the Opera: (03) 692-7777, Jerusalem at Bimot: (02) 623-7000 and Haifa at Barber: (04) 838-4777.