“Leaving the Blues” dramatizes the life of the amazing jazz, blues and Broadway singer/songwriter Alberta Hunter. I long thought her story was ideal for a musical, ever since I saw her astonishing comeback cabaret act when she was in her eighties at The Cookery – a restaurant owned by Barney Josephson, the same nightclub impresario who had featured Hunter half a century earlier in his Café Society, along with her peers Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.
Actually, Marion J. Caffey wrote just such a musical some two decades ago, “Cookin’ at the Cookery,” which is still periodically produced across the country. “Leaving the Blues,” now running at The Flea through February 8, is not a musical; it’s a play by Jewelle Gomez – a play that’s too long, with too many choices that need to be rethought.
But it also offers a new perspective, reflecting the playwright’s own experience seeing Hunter at the Cookery – and noticing how many people in the audience were young lesbians. As a character at the end of the play explains, these women are eager to hear Alberta “tell us about glamour and broken hearts and living like we’re human beings” – tell them, in other words, what it was like to be a star….and a lesbian. The play is a production of TSOS (The Other Side of Silence), which bills itself as New York City’s oldest LGBTQ+ theater
“Leaving the Blues” doesn’t completely ignore the music. It features seven delicious songs, two of which Hunter wrote, a third she made famous, and one especially composed for this show by Toshi Reagon. Some are delightfully naughty, such as “Handy Man,” by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf, full of double-entendres:
He shakes my ashes/greases my griddle Churns my butter/and he strokes my fiddle.
Broadway veteran Rosalind Brown sings these numbers exquisitely, as she portrays Alberta Hunter in different stages of her extraordinary life. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hunter was a blues singer and recording artist in demand throughout the U.S. and in Europe. In the 1950s, faced with waning interest in her kind of music, she left show business and went to nursing school. She worked in a hospital for 20 years, until the late 1970s, when she was forced to retire. Then, remarkably, she went back to a career as an entertainer, singing to great acclaim until her death at the age of 89.
We get this story largely in outline, much of it through conversations between Alberta and the ghost of famed black Broadway entertainer Bert Williams, who for some reason is called Will Williams in the play (portrayed by Michael Michele Lynch.) Will offers advice and an ear. If his ghostly presence is a somewhat unwieldy device to fill in some details of Hunter’s biography and of the era, there is some surface logic for including him in the play. Bert Williams was the uncle of Lottie Tyler, who the play for some reason renames Lettie Taylor (Joy Sudduth.) She was the love of Alberta Hunter’s life. Much of the play is taken up with their relationship, which was not ultimately a happy one. Lettie complains about Alberta refusing to live openly as a lesbian, her complaints leading to Lettie’s decision to end the relationship.
The play also prominently features a tap-dancing duo, the Calabash Cousins, Cal and Calvino (Benjamin Mapp and Cooper Sutton), who tour with Alberta and remain her friends. They actually aren’t cousins at all, but secretly lovers. I have no idea whether such an act existed for real (or if the playwright has renamed them too.) Although the couple do offer some entertaining tap routines, they seem to exist in the play primarily as a way to offer a contrast between their relationship and Alberta and Lettie’s.
We get a glimpse into the pressures facing the performer, and not just because of her attraction to women. Her own mother was prejudiced against her because of her dark skin. “I had to be a star,” she tells Lettie at one point, “since the world wasn’t going to let me be a woman.”
Looking at a historical figure like Alberta Hunter through the prism of race and gender and sexual orientation offers its satisfactions, though the approach often feels at the expense of what makes her such a fascinating person. When her young lesbian neighbor Beebe (Ameerah Briggs) tells her “When you tell me all your stories [about life on the stage], it seems like that spotlight was pure sunshine,” I couldn’t help feeling envious: Why don’t you tell us those stories too!
Leaving the Blues
TSOS at The Flea
Written by Jewelle Gomez
Directed by Mark Finley
Music director/arragnement by David Shenton, sound design by Morry Campbell, costume design by Ben Phillipp, set design by tJ Greenway, lighting design by Paul Hudson, choreography by Cynthia Murray-Davis.
Cast: Rosalind Brown as Alberta Hunter, Michael Micele Lynch as Will, Cooper Sutton as Calvino, Benjamin Mapp as Cal/Billy, Joy Sudduth as Lettie, Ameerah Briggs as Beebe, Tsebiyah Mishael Derry as May/Blanche, Erik Ransom as Fred/Jean/Chris
Running time: Two and a half hours, including an intermission
Leaving the Blues is on stage through February 8, 2020.