Review: ‘jazz singer’ Looks to Complicate a Film’s Fraught History

By Elisabeth Vincentelli

Sept. 29, 2019

A director and a composer play versions of themselves in a fascinating but frustrating reconsideration of a movie infamous for its use of blackface. 

From left, Nehemiah Luckett, Cristina Pitter, Joshua William Gelb and Stanley Mathabane in the multimedia show “jazz singer” at Abrons Arts Center.
From left, Nehemiah Luckett, Cristina Pitter, Joshua William Gelb and Stanley Mathabane in the multimedia show “jazz singer” at Abrons Arts Center.Ian Douglas
Jazz Singer
Off Off Broadway, Experimental/Perf. Art, Play
1 hr. and 40 min.
Closing Date: Oct. 12, 2019
Henry Street Settlement - Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St.

When you purchase a ticket for an independently reviewed play or musical through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.

Few films are as culturally significant as “The Jazz Singer.” Starring Al Jolson and released in 1927, it was the first feature-length “talkie.”

History made!

Yet Alan Crosland’s picture is now mostly remembered, and discredited, for a scene in which Jolson performs his signature song, “My Mammy,” in blackface — a form of entertainment that has long stopped being acceptable.

Like much art, though, “The Jazz Singer,” based on Samson Raphaelson’s 1925 play, is not easy to entirely dismiss. It is a fascinating, complicated text dealing with assimilation and community, transgression and forgiveness, tradition and innovation. It’s that fraught terrain that the director Joshua William Gelb and the composer/music director Nehemiah Luckett are surveying in their jazz singer,”a new multimedia show at Abrons Arts Center.

In the first part, Mr. Gelb, Mr. Luckett, the performer Cristina Pitter and the onstage co-sound designer Stanley Mathabane play themselves, or at least versions of themselves; Ms. Pitter also appears as a composite character named Tracey.

Every week, stay on top of the top-grossing Broadway shows, recent reviews, Critics’ Picks and more.

They are all working on what they call an “interrogation” of “The Jazz Singer,” and it’s not smooth sailing as they scrutinize the movie, issues of representation and artistic responsibility, and their evolving attitudes toward one another. 

Mr. Luckett, who is black, calmly says, “You’ve seen me perform. Why would you think I’m a jazz musician?” after Mr. Gelb blithely identifies him as such.

The original story involves the refusal of Jolson’s Jewish character, Jakie Rabinowitz, to become a cantor like his father; instead he achieves Broadway fame by performing “jazz” (actually more like Tin Pan Alley tunes) under the name Jack Robin. The performance of identity is at the heart of “The Jazz Singer,” and it is on everybody’s mind here.

Navigating the blackface segment raises yet more issues, and we see a short clip of Jolson coating his face and neck in greasepaint — except the image is safely cropped in such a way that you can’t quite tell what’s going on. (Having seen the film is not strictly required, but it does help.)

The first part of the show is fascinating, if self-indulgent, as we watch creators attempt to negotiate thorny material in the highly sensitized environment that is art-making in 2019. (Mr. Gelb enjoys recontextualizing historically notable art works. In 2016, he tackled “The Black Crook,” which is considered the first modern stage musical.)

The proceedings are not nearly as compelling in the messy second part, when the show moves into the retelling of the film. “Jazz Singer” meanders erratically as it tries to do too much at once: retrace the plot, superimpose a meta-commentary over the action, correct historical wrongs, insert the jazz that’s missing from the movie. (There is a different musical guest every night; on Thursday, it was the cornet player Linton Smith II, of “Playing Hot”).

At one point Ms. Pitter — an Off Off Broadway staple who brightens every show she’s in — sings a tribute to the black actress Carolynne Snowden, triggered by the fact that the one black woman in the 1927 film does not get a line and is not even fully seen. I was reminded of DJ Spooky’s “Rebirth of a Nation,” an audio and visual remix of D.W. Griffith’s racist magnum opus “The Birth of a Nation,” as well as of Lynn Nottage’s intricately plotted deconstruction of Hollywood’s racial fabrications, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.

Here, though, it feels as if the creative team was paralyzed rather than stimulated by their ambivalence and took refuge in a kind of florid obfuscation. Trying to cover all the bases and all the sensibilities, they ended up with a cautious show — and that doesn’t seem very jazz at all.

jazz singer 
Through Oct. 12 at Abrons Arts Center, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.


Jazz Singer


Find Tickets

When you purchase a ticket for an independently reviewed play or musical through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.


Henry Street Settlement - Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand St.
Lower E. Side




Off Off Broadway, Experimental/Perf. Art, Play



1 hr. and 40 min.



Conceived by Joshua William Gelb and Nehemiah Luckett; Music by Nehemiah Luckett; Directed by Joshua William Gelb



Joshua William Gelb, Nehemiah Luckett, Cristina Pitter and Stanley Mathabane



Sept. 24, 2019



Sept. 29, 2019



Oct. 12, 2019


Upcoming Shows
Wednesday October 2 8:00 pm
Thursday October 3 8:00 pm
Friday October 4 8:00 pm
Saturday October 5 8:00 pm
Sunday October 6 2:00 pm

This information was last updated on Sept. 30, 2019

A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 30, 2019, Section C, Page 2of the New York edition with the headline: For a 1927 Al Jolson Film, an Interrogation. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


You've been a subscriber for over 7 years.

Now share a year of The Times with someone.

Subscribers can purchase gifts at a 50% discount.

Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: