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Kennedy Center play explores racism and the Nat King Cole television show

On Nov. 5, 1956, the American network television audience was graced with the soothing, rich and perfect-pitch baritone voice of one of the first African Americans to have his own variety series program. The "Nat King Cole Show" debuted that day on NBC at a time when the country was grappling with racial segregation. Those seeking to end it saw their efforts gaining momentum, while those intent on maintaining the status quo dug in their heels and vowed not to change.

Even though Cole was without a doubt one of the greatest voices of the time, and still is, many white viewers did not welcome the extraordinarily talented singer, pianist and polished host into their homes. With guests such as Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Peggy Lee and Harry Belafonte, advertisers also shied away from the show to avoid backlash.

The racial turmoil of the country and the constant, racist corporate battles Cole fought with network executives over the 13 months the show was on the air, is the subject of a new play at the Kennedy Center, "I Wish You Love," which is the title of a well-known Cole recording. The show, which opened June 11 and runs through June 19, is a production of the Minnesota-based, African-American Penumbra Theatre Company and is written by Penumbra's Associate Artistic Director Dominic Taylor and directed by the company's founder, Lou Bellamy.

Although in the early moments of the play, Dennis Spears, who plays the role of Cole, performs "On the Sunny Side of the Street," this is not just a play to hear the best of Nat King Cole. Through fictional on-camera and backstage scenes, "I Wish You Love" captures the two worlds the real-life Cole lived in as the sophisticated, charismatic host and the Jackie Robinson of television, who faced bruising battles with network execs over funding for his show, his interaction with white guests and their calls for him to segregate his band members by race, something Cole refused to do.

Spears has great timing as Cole, as he goes from heated arguments during commercial breaks with the show's manager over various issues, to smiling brilliantly within a flash when the cameras go live.

Although most of the conversations in the play are fictional, Taylor does include a line Cole said in Ebony magazine about the lack of a national advertiser when the show ended in December 1957: "I guess Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."

The play also deals with a real-life incident when Cole was attacked by white supremacists during a concert in The South. In the play, when Cole tries to get justice for his band member who was beaten by police after the concert, the show's manager refused to help because, he said, "The police that jumped him are the audience advertisers want."

To put the play in context, Taylor incorporates news events of 1957, with a news anchor reading pages of copy at various intervals on civil rights protest marches and boycotts as archival black and white footage of the events is displayed on television screens. The black and white sets were also used during the segments of Cole's show, giving the audience the feel of being taken back in time, a time when even the best of the best, such as Cole, were treated unjustly simply because of the color of their skin. It's a journey that reminds the audience about a part of this country's history that needs not to be forgotten because the playing field is still not level for so many, and people ask daily, as Spears did in the play, "How good do we have to be?"

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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