In The Pocket: A Review

A cellist and dear friend, Katharine Knight, long ago told me about a phenomenon she encountered in teaching the cello: students who failed to practice before a performance, convinced that when they got on stage, they’d somehow be able to “bring it.” She called it magical thinking.

That story resonated with me as I think it might with any artist. How often have I failed to write, or having written, failed to revise, or having revised, failed to get reader feedback, or having done that, failed to revise again? In other words, how often do artists fail because they haven’t done the work? We all know how you get to Carnegie Hall.

The Ballad of Bobby Trombone program

Jeff Campbell’s Bobby Trombone reminded me of that magical thinking. Bobby carries that trombone around throughout this 90-minute one-act. He never plays it. He talks about playing it. He brags about knowing the famous jazz musicians who stay at the Rossonian Hotel. He talks about maybe playing with Duke or Satchmo. He says he’s the best bone-player in the West. Maybe he’s guilty of magical thinking. Maybe he’s one of the excellent musicians who never make it to the Big Time through no fault of their own. Maybe he’s a Denver talent who never had a chance. Opportunities for black musicians were mainly in New York or L.A. in the 30s and 40s. Maybe they still are. Bobby Trombone is a little of all the above. And Jeff Campbell, who wrote and plays him, has likely drawn on his own writing and acting frustrations and challenges for the role.

Wesley Watkins can and does play the trumpet he walks around the stage with, covers the stage in two long, loose steps and owns the best projection in town. Shane Franklin is Bobby’s foil, can dance and is trying to keep a dying art form alive. Tap, people. You gotta love a hoofer. Danette Hollowell—oh yes, she can sing. Check out her website, her YouTube videos, her many performances with many bands. We are teased with just a taste of each and left wanting more. If I could change anything about this play, I’d expand those sparkling performances.

Lobby of The Savoy

Artists like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington performed downtown but black folk couldn’t stay there, roomed at the Rossonian in Five Points, the black neighborhood. Lisa Kennedy covers that history (Denver Post, February 12, 2023) in her review. So does the play, in a light-handed and humorous way, never falling into lecture mode. We think everyone knows that Denver’s Five Points was called the Harlem of the West. But younger generations, or new-to-Denver folk don’t know that. The problem with history is how easily it’s forgotten: and then we are doomed. This is a story that needs to be told, again and again. It is also a story full of laughter and love and fine, often comedic acting.

During the talkback after the show, someone asked the cast to name their least and most favorite things about the show. Jeff Campbell, who does not play the trombone but does play Bobby, said that if we heard him play that horn, it would be our least favorite part of the show.

I’ve been a Jeff Campbell fan since his extraordinary one-man show, Who Killed Jigaboo Jones? The man’s a genius. Full disclosure: Wesley Watkins and Shane Franklin attended Denver School of the Arts during the years I taught there, and Danette Hollowell too, before she went to East, but none of these gifted artists were my students, so I get no credit for them.

In The Pocket: The Ballad of Bobby Trombone , an Emancipation Theater and Theatre Artibus production, was sold out, but they’ve just added shows. It’s at The Savoy, Denver.




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4 Responses to In The Pocket: A Review

  1. Good context, Pat. I hope to see it. (All three of those DSA students were favorites of mine. The play is sold out at this point. Hoping for an extended run.)

  2. Deb says:

    Oh man, I saw the show and LOVED it! I only knew Wesley as belonging to DSA and was thrilled to see 3 of the actors had done time there. In the talk back Q&A, I asked them how their experience at an art high school had impacted them, and surprisingly none had positive things to say about it. Danette got kicked out for not going to her classes–she loved singing and was sitting in on Shivley’s classes instead of going to her own academic and dance ones. Shane credited his artistic parents and Cleo Parker for his career and Wesley, well he challenged me to get DSA to just give him his damn diploma! Jeff is an amazing slapstick artist and said he watched Jerry Lewis for inspiration. What a talented group–I hope they can take this play on the road!

    • dubrava says:

      Wow, Deb, what enlightening feedback on DSA from those three. It didn’t occur to me to ask them about DSA since none were students I knew. I also assume by this point in their lives, high school has fallen far behind them in terms of important influences. Jeff, whose fan club I’m a member of, is a GREAT comic actor. So glad you got to see it. Support Emancipation Theater! Also, after the show, Danette said she and Wesley were about to be in the same band.

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