The cabaret stages a comeback as bright form of black political humor
New York — Whereever Hebert Nelson goes these days, politics is on his mind. But he is not campaigning for candidates for either national or local office. Instead, he's singing about them -- and not just their praises.
But Nelson, the nation's foremost proponent of literary, satirical "cabaret," couples a refreshing measure of hope and happiness in his songs. And as a former resistance fighter against the Nazis in occupied Holland, he knows from firsthand experience how much a little laughter can mean in troubled times.
Cabaret has returned to national acclaim. Nelson and his wife, Eva, a noted singer or "chansonniere" in ". . . and the pursuit of happiness!" in an off-Broadway theater. The Nelsons also have recently appeared on college campuses here and in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and North Carolina and in other teachers in Vancouver, B.C., and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Nelson also teaches a two-credit college course in cabaret writing and performing at Middleburry College, Vt.
A big, warm-hearted man, he steps under the floodlights and tells his audience here that "we have three presedential candidates, three lesser evils, three born-again Christians, and I shudder at the thought of what they must have been before they were born again!"
At another point, his wife sings "Early Morning Blues:" "It does not pay to read the papers, it does not pay to read the news, because all you get is just a case of early morning blues."
In fact, everything is fair game for his good-natured barbs and his wife's beautiful voice -- from "The Good Old Days," which he reminds audiences weren't all that good, to "Johnny," the cabaret song Marlene Dietrich made famous decades ago.
People came to cabarets not just to be entertained, but to be stimulated to think for themselves," Nelson says about his early days in the field in Berlin in the 1920s and '30s.
"Artists of all kinds -- painters, poets, composers, and writers -- came together and an interchange of ideas went on that influenced everything that was happening. for a while, the cabaret was the breeding ground for all the arts."
But with the rise of Hitler in the early 1930s, the literary form of cabaret took on a decadent twist, as portrayed in the Broadway musical and movie "Cabaret." And by 1933, the cabaret that Nelson's father ran had to close and the Nelsons escaped to Holland, where they opened a new cabaret in amsterdam.
When the Germans invaded Holland, the Nelsons again closed their cabaret -- but reopened it several years later "underground."
The theater remained "open" until the allied troops liberated the city. " You can't have a cabaret dictatorship," he says, "because one of its main purposes is to act as a social and political critic. Some dictators can't stand criticism."
Critics, in turn, have pointed out that the Nelsons' work is a "textbook example of how the material [of political and social satire] should be handle."