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An era when racism was entertainment

Johnny Lee Davenport plays Ernest Hogan, a man who wrote a hugely popular song then came to regret it at the turn of the 20th century.

DAVID COSTA

Johnny Lee Davenport plays Ernest Hogan, a man who wrote a hugely popular song then came to regret it at the turn of the 20th century.

STONEHAM — The actors rehearse in a low-ceilinged basement room, amid a lounge chair, a Victrola, a table holding a bottle. He plays a man dying of tuberculosis. She’s his nurse. They drink, laugh, flirt, rage, the characters’ connection palpable even as they push each other’s buttons.

“I wanted to write a convincing love story, that’s all,” says playwright Michael Aman.

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That he managed it is no small feat, given the other baggage the story carries.

Aman’s “The Unbleached American,” a world premiere opening Thursday at the Stoneham Theatre, depicts the rocky course of romance between an African-American man and his Irish immigrant nurse in 1906. Interracial relationships were hardly as common or accepted in America then as they are now. But the play tackles material that’s far more sensitive and difficult today.

The man is Ernest Hogan, a once-famous real-life musical and comic vaudeville performer hardly remembered now. He had a significant role in the birth of ragtime, but shot to fame and fortune with a song titled “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” a million-seller that unintentionally spawned an entire genre of racist entertainment in the early years of the 20th century.

“Oh my God, this cat wrote one song and it changed the fabric of entertainment,” says Johnny Lee Davenport, who plays Hogan. “It went from minstrelsy to true coon-ery. Coon songs, you know?”

Hogan was part of a popular minstrel tradition whose casual racism reflected its time. He wrote his hit thinking it was “just another silly song,” says Aman, the lyric intended as a woman’s way of saying, “If I lose you, I can find another.” But it opened the door for a whole new style of virulently racist songs defaming all black Americans.

“He opened Pandora’s box,” Aman says. “He became horrified when he saw the spate of imitators.”

Says Davenport: “Even though he may have written it as satire, people believed it. It created a ‘truth’ that was false.”

New York playwright Aman earned a doctorate in theater history in 2009. Around 2004, he was researching another late-19th-century performer when he came across Hogan’s story.

“This guy writes a song that makes him a ton of money, and he hates himself for it,” Aman says during a break in rehearsals. “It’s blood money, because it launched thousands of imitators.

“When I put pen to paper, I wanted to find a key moment where Ernest can deal with that, so I created the character of Sharon,” Aman says. “I thought, OK, a white nurse, because I love the contrasts, white-black, rich-poor, healthy-sick, male-female. What they have in common is a love of performance. And the fact that her father was a black-face minstrel — in the 19th century, the lowest rung of the ladder was shared by African-Americans and Irish.”

Laura Latreille plays Sharon Flynn, who arrives to nurse Hogan through what may be his final months and ends up bringing him alive — and face to face with his most famous work.

“She scares me, and when something’s complicated and scares you, you should do it,” Latreille says.

“It’s a relationship story. It’s two people trying to figure out how to live in the same space, and the boundaries that are established in the beginning are slowly, slowly just mowed down,” Davenport says.

But the song is never too far from their minds. Davenport thinks hard about what roles to take when race is part of the story, avoiding the simply pedantic and political.

“I’m always looking for plays that do not define me. I can do all kinds of these ‘black plays,’ but I really, really just want to do good plays, plays with good stories,” Davenport says. “I can play people that mean something other than a story about” — his voice drops into a comically deep register — “the black man who’s fighting with the adversity of his environment. Ehhhh, that’s old to me.”

He will dive in when a play works for him. Earlier this year he played a former slave facing post-Civil War realities in “The Whipping Man” at New Repertory Theatre. In 2011 he starred in Company One’s “Neighbors” as a black professor whose comfortable life is turned upside down when a family of minstrel performers moves in next door. This time, Davenport says, he got interested in learning more about Hogan, whom he had never heard of, despite his outsize impact on the way black Americans were thought of and treated.

The play has been in the works for years. Davenport took the part of Hogan in a developmental reading at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown several years ago. The title has changed, and he didn’t realize director Weylin Symes was offering him the same play until he opened the script. “I had no idea that Johnny had done a reading of it when I asked him to come in for the role,” says Symes.

Hogan was born in 1865, first published “All Coons” in the mid-1890s, and was dead of what was then called consumption before he was 45. There’s not a lot of biographical material available, considering Hogan’s impact in his day, Aman says.

“He was one of the most famous men on the planet in his day. It’s not about wanting to forget him, it’s just the American tradition of not honoring our major African-American figures,” says Aman.

Symes, who is Stoneham’s producing artistic director, notes that the interracial romance would have been far more shocking than the racial slurs in the time the play is set; now the script has been flipped.

“It takes so many of our perceived notions and turns them on their head,” Symes says. “It’s 1906 and we have an incredibly wealthy, incredibly successful black man and a very poor, bottom-of-the-rung Irish woman, and their status is completely the opposite of what you might expect.”

A good play is ultimately about people, not politics or issues. “I think it’s the love and the relationship and whether [Hogan’s] going to survive this illness that really matter,” Latreille says.

The play is “treading a fine line, but we don’t want to shy away from what’s real,” Aman says. “You can’t pull punches on history.”

First recipient of Jolly award

Boston actor Davron Monroe will be the first recipient of the $2,000 Bob Jolly Award to be given at the Independent Reviewers of New England Awards Monday night at the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts. The Jolly award goes to a performer who shares the late actor’s love of theater and commitment to the Boston stage. Monroe is an actor and singer who has appeared in several productions with the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. He played Nanki-Poo in “The Mikado” at the Lyric in fall 2012, alongside Jolly as Ko-Ko. It was Jolly’s last role before his death at 60 last August of a brain tumor.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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