Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Desiree Rogers,Troy Rockett, Michael Gene Sullivan
at New Conservatory Theatre Center 2017

Leaving the Blues

After a successful run at New Conservatory Theatre in 2017 Leaving the Blues is almost ready for a new incarnation.  It'll be done as part of the staged reading series at TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence) www.tososny.com  in New York City on Sunday afternoon, July 28, 2019.

Mark Finley, who did an amazing job with the production of Waiting for Giovanni last summer will be directing.  His take on that show was more minimalist and fit the space at The Flea Theatrer in TriBeCa perfectly.  I can't wait to see what his vision is for the tribute to lesbian singer/songwriter, Alberta Hunter.  It features a couple of traditional songs as well as a song written especially for the play by composer, librettist, singer Toshi Reagon www.toshireagon.com.  Toshi is an old friend from the vampire dance/musical, (which I adapted from The Gilda Stories) Bones and Ash, that toured a while back.

On the topic of not eating: food seemed to be a theme for the sold out run of the Baldwin show.  Starting with me and the president of the TOSOS board Michael Zegarski, discovering that we are both chicken wing aficionados!  We found that out after the long audition day in which we got to meet Robert DiNiro (He was the greatest, but that's another story.) 

                                          Mark Finley, Michael Zegarski and me in auditions

We'll be teaming up again for the reading of Leaving the Blues in New York City July 28th and fingers crossed maybe a TOSOS production in the future.  Watch this space.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Happy Birthday Alberta!

April 1st is the 120th anniversary of Alberta Hunter's birth in Memphis.  That was a a lucky day for the blues and not at all an April Fools joke.  Hunter went on to write and record innumerable hit songs and  have her compositions recorded by popular blues artists for decades.

In working on my play about Alberta I alternate between simply imagining what her life was like and doing research.  The research can be a little frustrating because she kept a tight rein on her image and allowed few frank facts about her personal life to come to light.  She had many reasons to be protective of her privacy.  

Despite her fame she was always haunted by the general consensus that she was too dark and did not have 'classic' enough features.  She was no Lena Horne or Fredi Washington. But when she sang "Darktown Strutters Ball" her emphasis was on the pride, the strutting, the musical joy of being dark   and lovely. 

She also kept her personal life quiet because she was a lesbian.  She wasn't unique in that; many artists of the 1920s and 1930s were queer from Duke Ellington's most famous collaborator Billy Strayhorn, to famed poet Langston Hughes (although his estate maintains otherwise).  

In order to gather whatever fragments of information that might be floating around I visited the Schomberg Library for Research in Black Culture (SFPL) as my way of celebrating Alberta's birthday.  Her papers are housed there and offer a treasure trove of miscellaneous insights.  My visit to the Library didn't turn up any torrid love letters or handwritten versions of her hit songs (I still have half of the collection to go through so maybe...). But most surprising and delightful was the discovery of how philanthropic Alberta Hunter was.  

When she was at the height of her earning or when she was living on a nurses salary when she retired from singing...it didn't matter.  She wrote checks big and small to every thing from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to a southern family living in poverty to the St. Lab re Indian School.  She sent off boxes of clothing and household goods to needy families--their thank you letters are in the folders.  

Sometimes she kept tallies of her donations on the backs of envelopes; neat lists that testified to her commitment to sharing the money she'd worked so hard to earn.  One note was even a reminder to help a friend pay her car note.  

Philanthropic studies usually show that the largest percentage of funds to non-profits come are small amounts from individual donors.  It's that tradition that Alberta was faithful to.  No matter the amount, sometimes $5 on occasion $500, she mad sure that her support was consistent.  Some folks spoke about Alberta's facility with finances as if she was cheap or tight fisted.  From her files it looked to me like a woman who'd come from nothing and was determined not to end up with nothing.  And she wanted others to share in her good fortune.

I felt really proud of Alberta's commitment to philanthropy; it's one I always saw in my own family even though we were living on the economic edge.  Now I want to figure out how to reveal that aspect of her personality so my Alberta on stage shows bother musical genius and her generosity.  Now I need to write a check to support....

Friday, February 27, 2015

In the Life

It's a long, perhaps unending, journey to self-identification.  Writer and AIDS activist, Joseph Beam  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_F._Beam   used the title "In the Life" for the first anthology of writing by Black Gay Men in 1986.  Lesbians (for once in our lives) were somewhat ahead of that game.  Having been closed out of mainstream publishing so thoroughly women created the Women in Print Movement which gave birth to magazines and publishers such as "Ache`" and Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

With the urgency of the AIDS crisis Joe understood the importance of getting the lives of Black gay men into print.   That legacy was key both to the cultural survival of next generations but also an important building block for political activism.  As was true with any movement (If I can paraphrase myself from my play "Waiting for Giovanni,") finding one's own name is the first step toward liberation.

Unfortunately historically-speaking all the words have been wrong.  'Homosexuality' is a medical term, really, and puts the emphasis on 'sex' obscuring the many elements that make up a gay life.  Although I've always favoured it 'gay' sometimes sounds too 'lite' as if we're always at a party.  (Would that were true!)  And because of media bias gay quickly came to be identified only with white males.  More recently 'queer' has been rescued from its negative past to be used as the umbrella term for all the initials: LGBTQIA, etc.  I like it but it does contribute to the tendency for women/lesbians to be minimized

So Joe turned to a historical term, "in the life," which has been around in the African American community for generations.  In my neighborhood it could mean you were a lady of the evening or gay.  I liked it because it suggested that being in the life was an active experience.  It was something you were doing, not a passive or victim experience.

I'm bumping up against the same issue as I work on LEAVING THE BLUES.  How do I describe Alberta and her lover, Lettie? (who's a composite character)   The language is problematic because people worked so hard to not say it out loud.  Staying hidden was how individuals stayed safe from persecution.

I've recently been working on how two characters can come out to Alberta and it's a challenge.  The two characters are from two different generations--one gay man born in the early 1900s; the other a lesbian born in the 1940s. 

The male/female experience is definitely different and the generations make a difference in the language they'd use.  I'm still researching and exploring what I might create; but it reminds me how crucial language is to our personal and our social liberation.  Each of us has to find the names that suit us.  I think one reason Alberta was never happy to say out loud who she was grew out of a problem with the words available to her.  Whether it's our multiple ethnicities, our class origins, our sexual orientation or gender identity...finding the specific words to express all of who we are is the first stop on the train that takes us to freedom.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

I lost several weeks of work on Leaving the Blues because of some minor health issues.  I finally decided to clean out my basement and in the hauling and bending I forgot I was not a teenager any more!  The habits of a life time have to be re-evaluated.  Once with a friend I carried a trunk full of my all of my belongings for ten Manhattan blocks...back in the '70s.  When I finished this current house cleaning I could barely walk up my basement steps.  After some tentative walking and no bending I had X-rays and don't have any serious damage but a course of physical torture...I mean physical therapy...is on order.
As I was trying to heal from this mishap I couldn't write but I thought a lot about Alberta Hunter.  When she returned to the stage to begin the second phase of her career she was already in her 80s! At the Cookery, where I saw her perform several time, she was effervescent, sharp and energetic.  As I remember her she seemed to burst from the stage in her huge hoop earrings and elegant gowns.   When she sang "Handy Man" and declared he "shakes my ashes, greases my griddle, churns my butter and he strokes my fiddle..." her double entendre made old and young scream with joy.  See for yourself:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLoPKQZRjOQ
Still she was an old woman, someone who never thought she was beautiful.  She'd made up for the poverty of her upbringing by working hard and giving herself the luxuries she never had as a child.  Still she lived in a Jim Crow country where the memory of the Underground Railroad and lynching were not distant.  So it was more than simply overcoming economic deprivation. The Cookery, where her career found it's renaissance, was opened by Barney Josephson, the first white entrepreneur to operate an integrated New York club in the early days; not an accident I think.  He saw artists before he saw color or age. 
When Alberta stepped on to the tiny Cookery stage she stepped carefully, as an old woman does.  Looking back I now remember she didn't move around that much once she was in the spotlight...except for her flashing eyes and beautifully manicured hands.
Later as her health became more frail the Cookery rigged a small dressing space on the same floor as the restaurant so she wouldn't have to climb the stairs from the lower level.  Still Alberta performed with all the life energy she had.  I recently attended the gathering of OLOC--Old Lesbians Organizing for Change and thought Alberta would have been a headliner there!  The room was full of sparkling, white-haired lesbians, Baby Boomers and older, who were still determined (despite bad eyesight and creaky bones) to make the world more habitable for us.
In writing this play I want to see who this fiery old woman might have been.  What propelled her onto that stage when her joints must have been aching?  To be old and Black and female and lesbian in the US is to be the least valuable asset in the eyes of some.  With this exploration of the inner resolve that kept Alberta Hunter climbing onto the stage I think we'll see one of the most valuable gems this culture could ever have. 
Join us at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in spring of 2016!  http://www.nctcsf.org/

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

It begins

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.