When Queen City Music Was King

A Playhouse world premiere celebrates King Records.
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Photograph by Tony Arrasmith/Arrasmith and Associates

Five years—including an entire year of research and interviews—went into producing Cincinnati King, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s world premiere about King Records, the local label that counted James Brown among its artists. It’s billed as a musical, but Playhouse Associate Artist KJ Sanchez, who wrote and directs, considers the show “a mash between a documentary play, a jukebox musical, and a fictional play.”

Sanchez and her team interviewed everyone from founder Syd Nathan’s relatives to former King studio musicians. She added in a healthy dose of creative license and distilled it into a play focused on three characters she found particularly compelling: Nathan, recording star Little Willie John, and studio drummer Philip Paul.

Music from the King catalog is featured throughout, and the band endeavors to play the 16 songs as they sounded in their heyday. Though it’s set in the past, the play explores still-relevant questions about the value of art and the autonomy of artists. And Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison notes that it doesn’t shy away from complex racial issues. “Many of these artists feel like they were underappreciated, undercompensated, and perhaps even taken advantage of,” he says.

Through Dec. 23, cincyplay.com

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