Robert O'Hara is the Tony-nominated director of Slave Play and is currently working on several film, television, and Broadway projects. He’s a two-time Obie Award Winner and two-time NAACP Award Winner whose work has been seen around the country.
Director Robert O'Hara on Jelly's Last Jam
by Emily White, Editorial Manager at New York City Center
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
What was your first experience with Jelly's Last Jam?
I saw the original Broadway production in 1992, right after I moved to New York to attend graduate school. I can remember sitting in the balcony and having my mind blown from start to finish. It was incredible and solidified, for me, that I wanted to be a director, but also that I wanted to work with George C. Wolfe.
I have a long history with George. He has been a mentor for most of my professional life, and he gave me my first start in the business. And with this Encores! presentation of Jelly’s Last Jam, George has been there from the beginning, guiding me. It's a very difficult and exciting piece about one man’s legacy and his relationship to his culture.
Why is Jelly’s Last Jam so important in the overall musical theater canon?
Because it was a Broadway show with a Black protagonist that wasn’t interested in making audiences comfortable. It’s about black genius. It examines the light and the dark. It was sexy. It was hilarious. It was incredibly moving, joyful to watch and painful at times. And that is why it meant so much to me, because I had rarely seen that level of excellence.
It is profoundly moving to me that I have the ability to do just this little bit of reincarnation. How many people get the chance, 30 years after they've seen the original, to actually work on a revival of it, and to have the ability to communicate with the people who created it? That is a rare gift, I think.
L-R: Okieriete Onaodowan (Buddy Bolden), Billy Porter (Chimney Man), Nicholas Christopher (Jelly Roll Morton), Joaquina Kalukango (Anita), John Clay III (Jack the Bear), Tiffany Mann (Miss Mamie), and Leslie Uggams (Gran Mimi); photo by Jenny Anderson
Can you tell me a little bit more about Jelly Roll Morton himself — a historical figure who was not the nicest individual?
Well history is littered with historical figures who weren’t very nice. But Jelly Roll Morton’s contradiction of character starts with his proximity to whiteness. He was Creole and incredibly light-skinned. He was sexist, prejudiced, colorist, misogynist, and elitist. He was also a musical genius. And his music lives on in this show. There are new arrangements by the great Luther Henderson, but for the most part this is Jelly’s music, and Susan Birkenhead is also a lyrical genius.
Jelly’s Last Jam is a musical about and performed by Black people that are not simply there to make your toes tap, but also to say something about the virus of racism. This musical shows us what humanity looks like. And humanity is oftentimes difficult to reckon with, even in musical form.
What does it mean to you to have Jelly’s Last Jam onstage during Black History Month?
Every month for me is Black History Month, so the show being in February is not anything significant to me. But I think that if it means that a more diverse group of people will see it, then that's exciting to me.
We as artists are here to reflect on the human condition. The human condition is messy and difficult to take in. So I think it's a celebration, because Black people are complicated, just like everybody else is complicated. We're not a monolith, and so the celebration is in the complication, is in the contradictions.
I think that's why the musical is so brilliant. It’s an act of artistry and creative impulse that we're able to put something so large and so celebratory on stage, and yet still see behind the curtain, see behind the man, to take Jelly and the audience on this journey of his life through the rearview mirror. As the musical says, it’s a journey to save his soul.
30 Years of Encores!
Jelly's Last Jam
Feb 21 – Mar 3, 2024
Take your seat at the legendary Jungle Inn nightclub for an electrifying musical telling the story of jazz through its self-proclaimed inventor: Jelly Roll Morton. Directed by Robert O’Hara (X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X) and written by Tony-winner George C. Wolfe (Rustin, Shuffle Along), Jelly’s Last Jam is set to Morton’s iconic music. The cast features Nicholas Christopher (Sweeney Todd), Joaquina Kalukango (Paradise Square), Billy Porter (Pose), Leslie Uggams (American Fiction), and more!