Breaking down barriers: Cafe Society Swing

Richard Price enjoys a tribute to a pioneering club at the Theatre Royal, Stratford.

In 1938, Barney Josephson opened the first integrated nightclub in New York. Naming it Café Society in a barbed reference to the beautiful people and bright young things of the 30s, he later said that he “wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front … there wasn’t, so far as I know, a place like it in New York or in the whole country.” He was also influenced by the political cabaret he had seen in Germany and France. The son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia, Josephson’s brother Leon was a prominent Communist Party lawyer.

The club showcased African American talent, and opened with Billie Holiday, who sang her famous anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, composed by Communist teacher Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol). It also held numerous benefits for progressive causes. With renowned talent spotter John Hammond as unofficial musical director, Café Society boosted the careers of Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and a host of other stars.

By the late 40s, the chilly winds of the Cold War were creating a much more hostile environment. Leon Josephson, who had borrowed the $6,000 dollars to open the club, was hauled before a House Un-American Activities sub-committee headed by one Richard Nixon in 1947, and, following his refusal to testify, was jailed for contempt of Congress for a year. After a wave of hostile press coverage, Café Society folded in 1949.

Café Society Swing is a vivid words-and-music tribute to its great years. In Vimala Rowe, Judi Jackson and China Moses, the production has three top-class vocalists more than capable of tackling the great African American songbook. The links between the songs are carried by experienced actor Peter Gerald, appearing at different points as an anti-communist hack out to dig dirt but who begins to doubt his mission; a bartender; and finally as Barney Josephson himself. Backing them was a first class eight-piece band among which the fine saxophonist Tony Kofi deserves a special mention.

It’s a joyous, heartfelt production, and judging by its packed and enthusiastic house, deserves a longer run or a West End transfer.