First mystery solved: T.O.B.A. stands for Theatre Owners Booking Association, an all-African American traveling entertainment circuit in the '20s and '30s of the previous century. One wag remarks in this show that it also stood for Tough On Black Asses, which is a pretty good line and a summary of those entertainers' experiences. While recreating the music and comedy of black vaudeville, the staged numbers here are intercut with depictions of the brutal travel demands and racism the entertainers had to deal with. The show was conceived by Ronald "Smokey" Stevens and Jaye Stewart (with nods to stories by Langston Hughes), and it's an enjoyable evening that at times feels a bit thin. Much credit for the production's appeal goes to the skilled three-person cast, led by Yolanda Bruce as singer Bertha Mae. Benny S. Cannon and T. Mychael Rambo chip in as comedy duo Stewart and Stevens; the two share a loose and easy chemistry in both their comedic performances and dramatic snippets.
These interludes don't really achieve any great depth, though more character exploration might have come at the expense of T.O.B.A.'s breezy pace. By the conclusion of this two-hour show, a considerably wide range of performance styles has been explored. Cannon, a gifted physical comedian, plays a mean washboard for a tap-dancing Rambo, then later chases him around brandishing a rolling pin and wearing a woman's wig. Rambo pulls off a moving monologue about associating black men with ugliness, and he's very affecting while performing a pantomime in blackface. The moment he appears in that scene, a black man impersonating a white man impersonating a black man, has unexpected shock and poignancy. The cast plays to capture the mood, artistry, and genuine appeal of the black vaudeville traveling shows while not shying away from the broad and often degrading stereotypes performers were expected to depict. Bruce holds things down on the vocal end (Cannon and Rambo also acquit themselves nicely) with hearty solo numbers, especially a bawdy and sexy "One Hour Mama" that comes across with as much ironic threat as promise.
The show gives us a look at how black musical idioms were appropriated in "mainstream" (i.e., white) musical theater and how this cross-pollination produced much of what is and was good about popular and theatrical American music. It also reaches for the haunting effect of showing long-dead and forgotten artists who never got their due. The poignancy of their plight, though, is ironically undercut by the charisma and energy of the performers. Watching Rambo and Cannon on a grueling train trip might evoke compassion, but these guys are just too funny and are having too good a time onstage for me to worry much about them. While it's worthwhile to recognize the sacrifices and hardships these performers endured--especially the ones specific to their skin color--the precise weight of that suffering doesn't come across with convincing immediacy. The end result is a show that frequently feels as though it is skimming across the surface of things. While that charge is serious enough, it is made with an acknowledgment that T.O.B.A. also delivers genuine laughs and catchy tunes, not to mention a show-off solo piano piece by Sanford Moore to lead off Act II with raucous virtuosity.