Alberta Hunter sings the blues
by Richard Dodds
Alberta Hunter had to leave the spotlight to get back in it. When she quit show business in the 1950s, with the blues style that had brought her international recognition years before no longer in fashion, few people took note of her absence. But after two decades working as a fulltime nurse, she was lured back to the stage, and audiences welcomed someone they didn't even know they had missed.
Hunter was still booking gigs right up until her death at age 89, with new audiences relishing this authentic connection to what had become a fabled musical era that survived mainly on scratchy recordings. It was also a feel-good story: little old lady has a triumphant final act.
Jewelle Gomez's new play Leaving the Blues seeks to provide a deeper context for the simple outline of a geriatric fairytale comeback. Now having its world premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center, the play opens in the 1970s, travels back to earlier parts of the 20th century, and then returns us to where we started as Hunter reluctantly accepts a promoter's propitious invitation to sing again.
While segregation and discrimination inevitably helped define and limit any black artist's career when Hunter was starting out, Gomez doesn't use that as a driving force. The grit necessary for dramatic traction is instead provided by Hunter's sexuality, and specifically her love for one woman in particular. As depicted by Gomez and rendered in a low-key performance by Desiree Rogers, Hunter isn't a guilt-ridden lesbian but rather a private one whose inability to acknowledge that her longtime companion is more than a no-innuendo companion becomes that relationship's undoing.
That real-life companion was Lottie Tyler, niece of vaudeville star Bert Williams whose across-the-board popularity helped break many of the color lines in entertainment even as blackface was part of his act. In Gomez's dramatization that admittedly takes liberties with the facts, Lottie has been renamed Lettie, and her vaudevillian uncle is known as Will. It is the long-dead Will, who periodically appears in ghost form to Alberta, who stirs her memories and encourages her to confront her regrets, even pushing for a reunion with Lettie although he had disapproved of the relationship when he was alive.
Michael Gene Sullivan is outstanding as Will, always the showman when he materializes, as Sullivan layers irony onto the minstrel persona he forever carries with him. The production gets another lift with recurring appearances of the Calabash Cousins, a tap-dancing duo played with exuberant finesse by Paul Collins and Anthony Rollins-Mullens, who have stayed in touch with Hunter throughout the years. They are actually lovers, a secret long assumed by Hunter. When one dies, the scene of grief shared by Hunter and the survivor is considerable, although, oddly, Lettie's death is acknowledged largely as an aside. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong plays Lettie with a dignified reserve that only cracks when Hunter pushes to maintain a heterosexual image and shifts her out of the picture
As Hunter, Rogers doesn't strive for imitation in her work, which is pitched at a much quieter level than her fellow performers. It's an appealing performance that is low on passion, and the few musical interludes rendered in talk-song fashion don't nearly suggest the feisty swagger that Hunter could still effortlessly muster in her final years. The cast also includes Jasmine Milan Williams in a nice turn as a vaudeville newbie, Tai Rockett as a young butch lesbian who befriends Hunter in her later years, and Matt Weimer in a series of supporting roles.
Director Arturo Catricala's production smoothly unfolds on Kuo-Hao Lo's bric-a-brac set that suggests many locales and times. By the time Hunter died in 1984, she seems to have made no nod to the changing sexual times, still singing double-entendre songs about handy men and never addressing her sexuality in public. But the play conjures a bit of breakthrough liberation for Hunter in the end with a song dedicated to Lettie, but with lyrics that reserve their real message for their ears only.
Leaving the Blues will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through April 2. Tickets are $25-$50. Call (415) 861-8972 or go to nctcsf.org.