Tuesday, August 19, 2014
When Alberta Hunter was born in 1895 there was little to suggest the amazing musical career that was to follow. Named for the doctor who pulled up in his buggy to attend her mother, Laura, for the birth in Memphis. Her father, Charles was a sleeping car porter a not lowly job for African Americans at the time.
Alberta was a frail child who suffered several illnesses, which was not uncommon in the dusty working class and poor Black neighborhoods of many cities across the country. However her meager beginnings belied the extraordinary will contained within that petite frame. Alberta was a fascinating combination of often contradictory traits. She was a 'striver' that is always moving upward, away from poverty and conscious of projecting ladylike behavior. Yet she always remembered to support those less fortunate than herself and loved the risqué lyrics of the blues songs of her youth.
She had barely any education yet wrote an admirable number of blues songs including the first big hit recorded by Bessie Smith: "Downhearted Blues." She scrubbed other people's clothes, sang in dives, performed with Paul Robeson in London and on the Broadway stage. She was a nurse for 20 years, had female lovers most of her life and sang in clubs and concert halls around the world.
I saw her perform many times at the Cookery, in the West Village of Manhattan toward the end of her life and became fascinated by her sparky energy, her control of her image and her set and the things she did NOT say in the banter with her audience. My play about the inner life of Alberta Hunter...the things she did not say...will premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre http://www.nctcsf.org/ in 2016. Stay tuned here for the inside story of the process of the development of the work which is part of my cycle of plays: WORDS & MUSIC.