By Marilyn Lester
If fame is fleeting, then history can be fickle. While some names endure for generations, others fade from the spotlight and recede into darkness. African-American blues singer and songwriter Alberta Hunter (Rosalind Brown) was one of these, an artist who had fame from the 1920s through the 1950s and then faded from sight. But unlike others Hunter had a second remarkable career in the 1980s, only to be virtually forgotten now. Author and lesbian playwright Jewelle Gomez decided to rectify that situation in Leaving the Blues. The result is a labor of love that both intrigues and frustrates.
Leaving the Blues is the second of a trilogy of plays commissioned by the New Conservatory Theatre Center, which is dedicated to producing work for the queer and allied communities in the San Francisco area. Leaving the Blues premiered there in 2012 and is now being produced in New York at the Flea Theater space by TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence), New York City’s oldest professional LGBTQ+ theater. Alberta Hunter was a lesbian— she was intensely closeted in life, and this reveal is the intriguing part. The frustration comes in with a top-heavy overload of her sexuality. It’s true that the producers of the play cater to the queer community, but Hunter’s story has so much more to offer.
The conceit of the play lies in the classic trope of the guide— or conductor— through one life’s journey. In this case it’s the ghost of the immensely popular vaudevillian, Bert Williams (1874-1922), who was a key figure in the development and advancement of Black entertainment. Williams, in dapper top hat and tails, carries a traditional church fan with black face on one side and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in jail on the other. This subtext of colorism is addressed during the play but opportunities to fully develop the theme are unfortunately missed.
The ride on Hunter’s memory train begins with her, aged 82, being forcibly retired from her job in a nursing home. Soon we’re flashing back to Hunter’s life as a popular blues singer, only to learn that she voluntarily retired from this life in the late 1950s and trained as a nurse. So ends Act One.
In the second act, the play addresses Hunter’s return to the stage at New York’s Cookery in 1977. She was an instant hit and performed there until her death in 1984, at age 89. The thread connecting the two acts is Hunter’s clandestine lesbian relationship with Lottie Tyler, Bert Williams’ niece, given the name “Lettie” in the play. The focus on Hunter’s lesbianism is entirely understandable given the commission and the producing entities. But again, opportunities were lost to go beyond the surface of the play’s theme and support it with more gravitas. Herein lies the structural problem with Leaving the Blues: Beyond preaching to the choir, the flow of material is not cohesive. It plays more like a documentary than a theatrical work, and Director Mark Finley also seemed perplexed as where to locate the character of Williams on the stage. Underused, Williams too often felt like an appendage to the action.
The cast of committed actors— featuring Brown alongside Michael Michele 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, and Erik Ransom as Fred/Jean/Chris— all comported themselves well in their roles. Brown, although not a blues singer, demonstrated a powerful voice in her renditions of “Down Hearted Blues,” Handy Man,” Dark Town Strutter’s Ball” and other numbers associated with Hunter. A new composition, “Lettie’s Blues” by Toshi Reagon had the flavor of classic blues tunes. Music Director David Shenton both arranged the compositions and took the lead on the keys.
Extraordinary costumes were designed by the very talented Ben Philipp. Sound design was by Morry Campbell. Lighting design was by Paul Hudson and set design by TJ Greenway. Choreography was by Cynthia Murray-Davis.
Leaving the Blues runs through February 8, 2020.
Run time is 2 hours 20 minutes with an intermission.
Presented by The Other Side of Silence
At The Flea Theater – Thomas Street between Broadway and Church St.