JEWELLE GOMEZ' NEW PLAY ABOUT A TRUE BLUES LEGEND, TRANSCENDS THE GLBT HISTORY OF FOREFRONT PERFORMERS
The jazz singer Alberta Hunter is front and center in Jewelle Gomez’s new play with music. The world Premiere of LEAVING THE BLUES is now on the Decker stage at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through April 2. Directed by Arturo Catricala, she presents Gomez’s second play (the first was her tribute to James Baldwin, Waiting for Giovanni), as a wonderful homage to the legendary Blues singer-songwriter Alberta Hunter.
Director Catricala assembled an excellent cast to tell this memorable story, especially with the capable Desiree Rogers as Alberta Hunter. Catricala says “Four years ago NCTC Artistic Director Ed Decker and playwright handed me a book about Alberta - I found myself in total amazement of her life story.- Her bio painted a picture of an ideal life in the theatre”. New Conservatory Theatre Center continues its 35th Anniversary celebration with this authentic new play and it celebrates a true blues legend.
The world premiere of Gomez's Leaving the Blues, is an NCTC commissioned play with music, celebrating the life of the legendary Blues singer and songwriter. The story follows her career as a nurse to her days in vaudeville. Hunter is backstage preparing for her comeback, knowing she will risk many issues about her private life. The play looks at over 60 years of her life including her career as a nurse. Leaving the Blues covers her public life as an African-American musician, and her private life as a lesbian, and her memories that don’t let her forget her emotional demons..
Gomez wrote a daring play that covers these demons, while adding on to the incredible high point of her amazing career. She was a powerful force against racism in the Jim Crow days of the 1920’s and her songs set a political tone to vaudeville. This gave black performers an opportunity in early american theatre. Played by the marvelous Michael Gene Sullivan, Bert Williams, vaudeville comedian, lifelong friend, and muse takes Alberta through her life and inspires her to sing and write new songs. Flashbacks journey the audience through her early stage days. We meet Cal and Calvino two entertainers that say they are cousins, played by the high energy local favorite Anthony Rollings-Mullens and Paul Collins. Their clever tap and soft shoe numbers choreographed by Jayne Zaban are sharp.
We also meet Lettie played by the dynamic Leontyne Mbele-mbong, who is Will's niece and Alberta’s hidden relationship. It was important for her to keep her private life out of the headlines and the theatre community, even though it was common knowledge by most of her peers. Aberta was forced to deal with coming out in an era where the topic was hidden and closed behind doors, whereas Lettie wants their true love to be public.
As Hunter, Rogers’ performance is an effective showing of of the singer’s fear for her private life while yearning for her music career. She is the official auntie of Will and Cal, Sullivan and Rollins-Mullens, and supports the gay couple, yet her relationship with Lettie suffers in contrast. The zestful Jasmine Milan Williams, plays May, a friend and vaudeville singer who was important to Hunter. The two are fresh and unique in the story offering a tender background about Hunter.
At 82, Hunter meets a young woman who is “out” and part of the local lesbian pride. The brash and delightful Tai Rockett plays Beebe, who becomes yet another muse to Hunter, and introduces her to a hip younger crowd of fans, and lesbian audiences. She also meets a new Euro producer played by the impressive Matt Weimer, who restarts her career with a new record contract and booking at NYC club that becomes a permanent six year home for her comeback. Wiemer is excellent in the cast playing a few roles and is pitch perfect with his accents as coached by dialect expert Patricia Reynoso.
The set design by Kuo-Hao Lo is rich with history and theatre props easily transforming from vaudeville stages to train stations. The creative team also includes lighting by Christian V. Mejia that sets the tone with the historic ghost light (an icon landmark on dark stages). The terrific music direction and songs by local favorite Scrumbly Koldewyn and Toshi Raegan are well executed. However, I would have like to see more songs staged. The period costumes by Keri Fitch feature the classic vaudeville for the two tap dancers and the white glove tux for the ghost, Will. The dresses on the women are vintage tan and brown tones, while Hunter’s from nurse to cabaret singer here wear is charming and colorful. Gomez’s script is interesting and moves well, covering the important aspect of Hunter's life, bringing us to the ups and downs of her career. She is an amazing theatre icon and musical treasure, which is so very important to gay and lesbian history.
New Conservatory Theatre Center Presents
The World Premiere of
LEAVING THE BLUES
The legend of Alberta Hunter
Written by Jewelle Gomez, Directed by Arturo Catricala
Music by Scrumbly Koldewyn
Must close April 2, 2017
New Conservatory Theatre Center
25 Van Ness Ave at Market Street, San Francisco, CA
Running time two hours 15 min One intermission
Tickets and information at 415-861-8972 or www.nctcsf.org.
Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/nctcsf/
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VIDEO CLIP FROM SHOW
For the world premiere of Leaving the Blues, NCTC is proud to partner with the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD). NCTC and MoAD presented special events for their members, including writing workshops with Gomez and a cabaret featuring a selection from the play and discussion with Gomez.
Thursday nights at 7pm in the NCTC lobby, audiences can enjoy a live-music pre-show by Mr. Tipple's Musicians, from Mr. Tipple's Recording Studio, the local jazz bar located in Hayes Valley/Civic Center.
The cast of Leaving the Blues features Desiree Rogers, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Michael Gene Sullivan, Jasmine Milan Williams, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Paul Collins, Matt Weimer, and Tai Rockett.
The creative team of Leaving the Blues includes musical arrangements and direction by Scrumbly Koldwyn, scenic design by Kuo-Hao Lo, costume design by Keri Fitch, lighting design by Christian V. Mejia, and choreography byJayne Zaban, prop design by Ting Na Wang, and stage management by Kaitlin Rosen.