Leaving the Blues
|Desiree Rogers as Alberta Hunter|
What does a nurse who is told to retire at age seventy (but who is really eighty-two since she once lied about her age) do next with her life? Half singing, half whispering, she tells her unseen patient with some evident sadness, “Trouble, looks like I had it all my day ... looks like trouble will follow me to my grave.”
But what if as she reflects on her last day of work, a ghost suddenly appears in tux, white gloves, and top hat from her past circuit-club days of the 1920s-‘50s, dancing across the floor, fanning himself with an old picture of his smiling in blackface? And what if said specter insists she get on a waiting train (horn tooting its soon-departure right there in her New York flat) to revisit her past? What is a woman to do but up and go? After all, he is promising to stir up enough memories of her past successes, friends, and loves to encourage her to return to the successful career she left some twenty years past in the late 1950s.
And hop onto that imaginary train does famed African-American blues and jazz singer and songwriter, Alberta Hunter, as she follows long-dead (but totally alive now as her happy, glad-handed guide and conductor), black comedian Bert Williams (Will). He takes the two of them and us in the already mesmerized audience on a ride through the now-octogenarian’s storied life via Jewelle Gomez’s world premiere play, Leaving the Blues. New Conservatory Theatre Center presents in epic proportions on an intimate stage packed with the details of a lifetime the fascinating, captivating, and totally invigorating story of one of America’s lesser-known but still legendary jazz greats, Alberta Hunter.
|Paul Collins, Jasmine Gene Sullivan & Anthony Rollins-Mullens|
First stop on Alberta’s journey into her past is a crowded, back-stage dressing room from many decades earlier where we are soon to meet key fellow travelers in her journey to come. There are the two young, tap-dancing Calabash Cousins – one dark-skinned (Cal) and one, light (Calvino) – who saunter through her dressing room with clear adoration shining through their otherwise mischievous profiles for their older, more famous colleague. There is a young performer, May, who twinkles with personality and seems willing to do anything Alberta suggests. Watching over this collection of early 20th-century, Black Vaudeville and nightclub entertainers – often making comments but seen and heard only by Alberta -- is her old friend Will (in the past, a bit of a stick-in-the-mud in her life), always the ever-present conductor through this journey of her life’s memories.
|Leotyne Mbele-Mbong (Lettie) & Desiree Rogers (Alberta)|
Into the recollections suddenly arrives a tall, distinguished, lighter-skinned woman, who shows up in the dressing room with a bouquet of flowers and a sudden kiss to Alberta’s lips. “That’s me telling your future,” the handsome woman named Lettie tells the startled, but clearly pleased Alberta. And with her entrance, author Jewelle Gomez has now introduced most of the main players of a life that is to play out before us – a life rife with the dangers and uncertainties but also the thrills and the excitements of being black entertainers traveling the clubs small and large in the Deep South as well as the Chicago and the East Coast – and then onto the much friendlier and welcoming stages of France and Europe at large.
Much of this particular telling mirrors the parallel love that the two “cousins” and that Alberta and her “secretary” Lettie have for each other – with neither pair outwardly revealing that love to the other pair or much less anyone else. The expressions of affection are behind closed stage, hotel, and apartment doors – something that increasingly frustrates Lettie to no end. “I don’t want to live in a shadow,” she says in exasperation to Alberta. “I don’t want to feel always like I am at a Klan rally.”
Alberta, on the other hand, is much more cautious, more inclined to feed the press stories about a supposed Spanish lover (male), and more at ease keeping all expressions of love behind securely locked doors. Understanding the tension between her and Lettie and its effects on her subsequent and present life while also recalling how “music always smoothed me out” (and could once again do so, now that she has ‘retired’) seems to be Will’s raison d’être for taking Alberta on this fantastical train journey.
Director Arturo Catricala creates an on-stage canvas that portrays Alberta Hunter’s life with just enough attention to detail to inform without ever being over-whelming and enough sense of authenticity without removing the sense of dream and fantasy. Humor is encouraged at almost every turn while moments of tender love, of tense confrontation, and of haunting loneliness and regret are able to emerge with authenticity and impact. And the cast he has assembled (with the help of Stephanie Desnoyers and Ben Randle) to embody these historical and fictional players is stellar to a person in their abilities to ensure each is accessible, believable, and memorable.
Heading that casting list is Desiree Rogers as Alberta Hunter, a woman always exuding dignity and depth of character – whether as a young, sure-stepped near-girl or as a slightly hunched and limping elderly woman who still shows much spunk and spirit. When she speaks, her Alberta tends to speak in phrases, sometimes syncopated or punctuated with paused rests, as if her speech is like a song being sung in her mind. When she sings, Ms. Rogers sways ever so gently to the music’s emotional undertones, uses her hands to emphasize both the bawdy and the sad, and sings in what is more like a personal conversation to her listening audience. While she does not have the raspy, smoky, and often gravelly voice of the real Alberta Hunter, Ms. Rogers does bring her own style of jazz and blues that surely captures the intent and feelings of the words and notes Ms. Hunter intended in her originally writing them.
To the role of Lettie, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong brings her own sense of inborn majesty and decorum. She moves and speaks with a pride that is deeply felt of who she is and what she is – including her identity as a lesbian at a time the word could not be spoken. Her expressions of love for Alberta are palpable while her exasperations of Alberta’s refusal publicly to recount their love are expressly visible in her voice, her eyes, and her entire stature.
Anthony Rollins-Mullens and Paul Collins are nothing short of delightful as the two Calabash Cousins and life-long lovers, Cal and Calvino. Their cute gestures of mutual affection, their spontaneous bursts of tap-dancing routines, and their own journey of aging together with all the joys and sorrows such a trip necessarily entails are all true highlights of this production.
|Michael Gene Sullivan, Desiree Rogers & Matt Weimer|
As the ever-present but mostly silent Will, Michael Gene Sullivan is himself a treasured gem of this cast. He is at times truly bigger than life in his broad gestures, lightened countenance, and all-knowing eyes as he watches over the journey he is conducting. But he also shows noticeable heart, concern, and wisdom in the way he counsels and guides his friend, Alberta, toward the next leg of her trip through life – one he intends to leave her on her own to conduct.
|Desiree Rogers, Tai Rockett & Michael Gene Sullivan|
Jasmine Milan Williams is May, a perky, bouncy club performer right out of the Roaring ‘20s and Depression ‘30s. Matt Weimer steps into number of roles, including Alberta’s nervous and pressing club manager Fred and her cheerfully witty and pleasantly meticulous producer in later years, Chris, with his heavy and fun Danish accent. Finally, Tai Rockett appears late in Alberta’s life as her much younger friend, Beebe, whose devotion to her is deep and with whom, it is clear there is no one closer.
Kuo-Hao Lo and Ting Na Wang have respectively created scenic and prop designs that are full of the depth, detail, and complexity to reflect different settings, cities, continents, and eras but at the same time never to detract from the focus on the key players of this story. The effectiveness of the scenic design – including its nod in the back wall to a train car – is tremendously enhanced by an inspired lighting design by Christian V. Mejia, whose changes of background colors through the back slats of lumber often accentuate the current mood and action. Toshi Reagan has composed original music that helps link the changing scenes and the progressing time periods.
But perhaps the loudest applause of this outstanding design team must go to the wide array of period costumes designed by Keri Fitch (as well as the incredibly authentic wigs designed by David Carver-Ford) that are a visual tour of the last century, especially when focusing on the history of Black, touring stage performers. Each time another performer emerges into the light, the detailed beauty of the dresses, the character definition of the entire outfit, and the often tongue-in-cheek selection of the particular garb are a show unto themselves.
Toward the end, the aged but still stunning Alberta Hunter slowly steps to the stage’s edge and sings, “Every song I sang, I was singing for you.” While she is at that point thinking of a love no longer in her life but still alive in her heart, it feels to each of us in the audience that she means me. It also feels that we have each been given a wonderful gift by New Conservatory Theatre, Jewelle Gomez, and Arturo Cartricala as they have introduced us to the incomparable Alberta Hunter in Leaving the Blues.
Rating: 5 E
Leaving the Blues continues through April 2, 2017 at the New Conservatory Theatre, Ed Decker Stage, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.
Photos by Lois Tema