Two Originals: Louis Jordan and Robert O’Hara


Washington theatergoers who like to take a little walk on the wild and Woolly (as in Woolly Mammoth) side are probably familiar with the playwright and director Robert O’Hara.

Two of his plays – “Antebellum” and “Bootycandy,” which he also directed – were presented at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, which O’Hara considers a natural home for his work. “Antebellum” won a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play.

Sex, race, politics and power and the very dark and deep old South are recurring themes in his plays, which can be a shade disturbing – and plain unforgettable, too.

But what’s this? O’Hara is directing a musical?

“Sounds funny, I’m sure,” he said. “But it’s really something I’ve always wanted to do.”

O’Hara is the director guiding “Five Guys Named Moe” at Arena Stage (in the Kreeger Theater through Dec. 28). It’s a rollicking re-do of what was already a popular homage to the music of 1940s and ’50s composer and bandleader Louis Jordan.

“When Molly [Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith] said she wanted me to do this, I had to give it some thought, as to how and why,” he said. “I didn’t just want to do the same thing as the original. I didn’t want to re-create the period, some send-up of Jordan and the times. I wanted to respect the music, sure, but I wanted it to matter to our own times and how we live today.”

He wanted to bring a little bit of boy-band style, a little bit of Beyoncé style, a little bit of hip-hop style to a show that’s essentially about the blues.

“Jordan was an original,” O’Hara said. “That’s what I wanted to do, too. Nobody’s ever asked me to do a musical, although I did rewrite ‘The Wiz’ for a production in California once. This is very different.

“It’s definitely a modern version,” he said. “We have this guy, down and out and lost, sitting drinking. He’s lost his girlfriend and he doesn’t know what to do, and he hears these voices coming out of a radio, an old radio.”

And they come to life.

“The music has some edges of hip-hop to it, and the guys, they look jazzy and stylish, they’re contemporary, they’re about to put on a show when they confront this guy. They call him NoMax. And they give him all kinds of advice about his drinking, about his girlfriend, how to treat women and how to behave. It’s meant as a tribute to the music and Jordan, but with a contemporary edge to it. These guys, the Moes, are now.”

Jordan’s songs and music may have looked ahead to rock and roll, but the songs themselves are pungent and authentic, deeply bluesy, raw and full of butt-out, flat-out humor. Just listen to the titles and you get the idea: “Messy Bessy,” “Pettin’ and Pokin’/Life is So Peculiar,” “Knock Me a Kiss,” “I Like ’Em Fat Like That!,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again),” “Reet, Petite and Gone,” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”

This is hangover funny, can’t-stop-dancing stuff, late into the next day’s morning, authentic as all get out. They sound a little like O’Hara’s plays: fresh and honest and real.

O’Hara’s new play, “Zombie: The American,” will hit Woolly Mammoth in May, directed by Artistic Director Howard Schalwitz.


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