Get your kicks on North Kent Street

Playwright Dominic Taylor celebrates the life and music of Nat King Cole—the first African American to be welcomed into the living room of white America.

Dennis W. Spears plays Nat King Cole in I Wish You Love

photo courtesy: Penumbra Theatre

Dennis W. Spears plays Nat King Cole in “I Wish You Love”

by Carter Haaland

What: âÄúI Wish You LoveâÄù

When: April 21-May 22

Where: Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent St., St. Paul

Cost: Regular $38, w/ student ID $10

The year was 1957. The push for racial equality that erupted into the civil rights movement of the âÄô60s was beginning to boil. Montgomery, Ala., had just boycotted the buses. Eisenhower had the Civil Rights Act sitting on his desk. Little Rock Central High School was integrating. Althea Gibson won Wimbledon. And the smooth baritone voice of Nat King Cole, along with his pleasantly refined public image, made him the first black person to host a nationally broadcasted television show.

From the pen of Dominic Taylor and starring Dennis W. Spears, âÄúI Wish You LoveâÄù is a fictional retelling of the last two episodes of ColeâÄôs show. The audience will take a seat behind the television studio and be offered a glimpse at the deeper character of a man whose glossy public image still defines him to this day. The performance will be punctuated by 20 of his jazzy pop classics.

Beyond the barriers this beloved racial pioneer and pop icon broke down, the greater context and timing of the play harbor its most significant impact. ColeâÄôs assertion as a cultural entity intriguingly coincided with many other events and accomplishments of great importance to blacks.

âÄúThe play looks at this image of this black man in 1957 juxtaposed with all the other things that were going on,âÄù Taylor said.

This juxtaposition is not an attempt to belittle ColeâÄôs contribution to black AmericanâÄôs struggle for equality, but rather it emphasizes the fact that his accomplishments, however significant, were undoubtedly aided by the work of many less-celebrated freedom fighters. The timing highlights the battles that laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement.

The play depicts an uneasy time in the life of Cole. Advertisers are pulling out one by one after Cole allegedly touched the hand of Peggy Lee, a popular white singer of the day. An anonymous instigator sends him a package containing a noose.

This narrative exposes the dichotomy between the manicured, on-screen image of the Cole weâÄôve come to know and the off-camera human being he actually was.

âÄúThe media tries to flatten him out and not make him as complicated as he was. In a way, itâÄôs making him less than human when youâÄôre trying to say he was this cookie-cutter, pleasant person,âÄù said Taylor. âÄúI think itâÄôs a disservice to him and a disservice to us as viewers.âÄù

To intricately weave ColeâÄôs two diverging personas into a full-scale production, Taylor, a University of Minnesota theater arts professor, worked closely with many other University colleagues. Director of the play and Penumbra Artistic Director Lou Bellamy is also a theater professor. Faculty members handled the setting (Lance Brockman), costume (Mathew LeFebvre), and media productions (Martin Gwinup) for the play.

The play will debut just a couple miles from the UniversityâÄôs St. Paul campus. It will spend a month under MinnesotaâÄôs paper moon and then hit the road to spend those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer in Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Conn.