Playwright Jewelle Gomez was one of the lucky people who got to see jazz and blues singer and songwriter Alberta Hunter perform at The Cookery in Greenwich Village, New York.
Gomez was so inspired by Hunter's music and life that eventually she wanted to write about the legend who had a successful career from the early 1920s to the late 1950s, and then stopped performing. Then in 1977, after twenty years of working as a nurse, Alberta Hunter successfully resumed her popular singing career until her death.
Gomez's play about Hunter, Leaving the Blues, is making its New York premiere at the Flea Theater in TriBeCa through Feb. 8.
Leaving the Blues is the second work in "Words and Music," Gomez's trilogy about African American artist in the first half of the 20th century and is produced by the award-winning theater company TOSOS (The Other Side Of Silence). TOSOS is New York City's oldest and longest producing professional LGBTQ+ theater company.
Gomez, the author of eight books including the Lambda Award-winning classic vampire novel, The Gilda Stories spoke to WBGO News Director Doug Doyle about Leaving the Blues and the first time she saw Hunter perform at The Cookery.
"It was an exciting time to go there because it would always be packed. You had to make a reservation far in advance. So my grandmother was coming to visit me from Boston where I'm from and when I lived in New York and she had been a chorus girl. She danced on the chorus line in the Black Theater companies so she knew of Alberta. She never danced with her but she certainly knew of her. So I said let's go Nana and see her. Place was packed. I said 'Nana you see all these young women in here why do you think there here?' She says 'I don't know'. I said 'Well, most of them came because they heard Alberta Hunter was a lesbian.' And my grandma says 'Oh, everybody knew that!' That was in the mid 80's and from then on I really wanted to write something about this amazing woman who had a kind of a hidden life and an amazing career. So I started doing research after I did my earlier play in the trilogy, I started doing more research about her and realized she was somewhat secretive or unspoken about her life. So there was a lot to discover and a lot to tell."
What made Hunter special, in Gomez's opinion?
"She would come on stage. She was a little thing, very petite and she would be wearing a beautiful long gown and a long scarf in her hand, perfect makehup, bright red lipstick. Her earrings were almost as big as she was. When she smiled she took in the entire room. She wanted to talk to you as if you were her children. She immediately put you at ease and immediately jumped into her singing. She was as crisp and consumate performer as anyone I've ever seen and she was by then in her 80's."
Waiting for Giovanni, focused on the life of author James Baldwin, is the first play in Gomez's trilogy. The third play Unpacking at Ptown will premier in 2021.
Leaving the Blues premiered at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center in 2017. Gomez is the Playwright-in Residence there.
Gomez says she's enjoyed working with the director of the New York premiere Mark Finley who is the artistic director at TOSOS. Finley has directed many of the theater's acclaimed production including Doric Wilson's Street Theater a 2016 IT Award Winner for Outstanding Revival. The playwright says she was blown away by Rosalind "Roz" Brown in rehearsals. Brown, a New York native who comes from a family of musicians, plays the lead role of Alberta Hunter in Leaving the Blues. Brown was in the original casts of Broadway's One Mo' Time and Footloose.
"I had the good fortune to be invited by Mark to come to the auditions and we saw some amazing performers. There's an array of fabulous talents available to you when you're doing auditions on the east coast. Roz was one of the first people we saw and I was blown away. I kept thinking we will not need a microphone in this theater. Roz is so fabulous, a great voice and (she) is really able to pinpoint that kind of energy and professionalism. So Mark and I talk about the different people. We had to have tap dancers. Mark made some fabulous choices."
The two-act, eight-actor, multi-character drama with songs will feature the original song, Lettie's Blues, by the world-renowned musician/composer Toshi Reagon.
"I really wanted a song to finish this play off on an upbeat Blues number that pulled together the strains of the plot. So I wasn't going to find that looking through all the blues, but I thought of Toshi because she can write any kind of music you want. She can write anything. She wrote the perfect song to close out the show."