University of Pittsburgh
May 10, 2005

Pitt's Kuntu Repertory Theatre Presents Sweet Thunder: The Billy Strayhorn Story


Sharon Blake


Cell: 412-277-6926

PITTSBURGH—The University of Pittsburgh's Kuntu Repertory Theatre wraps up its 2004-2005 season of musicals with Sweet Thunder: The Billy Strayhorn Story, May 19 through June 4. All performances are in the Seventh-Floor Auditorium of Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., Oakland.

Sweet Thunder explores the life of jazz pianist, composer, and Pittsburgh native Billy Strayhorn, whose collaborations with Duke Ellington over three decades produced "Take the 'A' Train," "Satin Doll," and many other memorable jazz tunes. The cast includes Nathan James as Strayhorn and Sly Jock as Ellington, along with Kevin Brown, Denise Sheffey Powell, and Mark Thompson. A jazz ensemble will provide live music.

Strayhorn grew up in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh and attended Westinghouse High School. Using money earned by running errands for a local drug store, he eventually saved enough for a piano. He studied classical music as well as jazz and, at age 22, was introduced to Duke Ellington. "The Duke" liked what he saw in the shy but talented young man and took him under his wing. By the end of that first year, Strayhorn was composing and arranging for the band, and had almost completely assimilated Ellington's style and technique. The collaboration between the two men produced such favorites as "Chelsea Bridge," "Day Dream," "Lotus Blossom," and Ellington's famous theme song "Take the 'A' Train." Strayhorn composed another popular standard, "Lush Life," while he was still a teenager in Pittsburgh. He died of cancer in 1967 at the age of 52.

Ben Tyler, a native of Arizona, wrote Sweet Thunder for the Phoenix-based Black Theatre Troupe. Tyler, who is also a teacher, actor, and director, has written Mr. Conservative, a one-character play about the life and times of Senator Barry Goldwater, and The Wallace & Ladmo Show and The Last Wallace & Ladmo Show, a pair of comedies that offer a backstage look at a politically incorrect children's television program from the 1960s.

Sweet Thunder is produced and directed by Paul Carter Harrison, who has a long artistic association with the Negro Ensemble Company. In addition to writing plays

and the operetta Anchorman, he edited Kuntu Drama: Plays from the African Continuum (Grove Press, 1974), and wrote the text for the Bert Andrews photo book on Black theatre In the Shadow of the Great White Way (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1989). Harrison taught theater at Howard University and at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and, until his 2002 retirement, was a professor and writer in residence at the Theatre Center of Chicago's Columbia College.

Neal Tate, who served as music director for two recent Kuntu plays, Bubbling Brown Sugar and Jelly's Last Jam, is in that role once again. Tate's Broadway experiences include Hair, Ain't Misbehavin', Jump for Joy, and Guys and Dolls. He has arranged music for a variety of artists' nightclub acts, including Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Gregory Hines, and Lena Horne. His original compositions have been used for theatrical productions and dance companies, as well as in commercials.

Performances of Sweet Thunder: The Billy Strayhorn Story will be held at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays. Matinees are scheduled for

May 28 at 1 p.m. and June 2 at 11 a.m. For ticket and group sales information, call 412-624-7298 or visit