Thu. Oct 22nd, 2020

Theatre Review: The Great White Way Downtown this season | 1980-1-11

Director/Producer La Mama

Ellen Steward’s LaMama E.T.C., the world-famous off-Broadway theatrical complex in the East Village, recently celebrated its 18th anniversary. LaMama Theatre has launched the careers of many Broadway, television and film professionals.

Predominately black Broadway shows haven’t fared too well on The Great White Way this season. The first of these to open and close this fall was Vinnette Carroll‘s But Never Jam Today, an all-black musical loosely based on the popular fairy tale Alice in Wonderland. The show lasted all of one week and had to close because of sparse attendance.

Earlier in the season, Daddy Goodness, starring Freda Payne, Clifton Davis and Ted Ross, was rumored to be the next huge Broadway smash. But after preview runs in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, the big move to Broadway was abruptly cancelled. The Motown-backed production received unfavorable reviews in both cities and was continually plagued by major staff changes. The marquee at the Winter Garden Theatre which heralded the play’s opening was removed two weeks before its scheduled premiere.

Rehearsals for Together, A Carver Celebration, have been postponed until early 1980. The musical dramatizes the life of George Washington Carver, the black Missouri scientist who rediscovered the peanut. Donald McKayle was to have been the director.

So far the most promising theatrical venture of the season appears to be Comin’ Uptown, by Philip Rose and Peter Udall. The all black musical opened recently at the Winter Garden Theatre. This liberal interpretation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol will feature Gregory Hines [Eubie!] as Scrooge and a cast of thirty-two singers and dancers

Geoffrey Holder
Geoffrey Holder, Actor, Choreographer, Dancer

Geoffrey Holder, director and choreographer of Timbuktu!, last season’s colorful musical fantasy, and Tony Award winning director of The Wiz, is off to Dallas to work on a new Broadway project that is expected to travel north to the Big Apple soon.

Bernard Johnson, known to the Broadway and film world for his creative costume designs, is back from the West Coast, taking a slight breather after getting Deniece Williams’s act together and taking it on the road. After the new year, Bernard will design and choreograph upcoming Broadway productions of Indigo, Suddenly The Music Starts, and Bojangles, starring Ben Vereen.

Everybody knows what an arduous time black actresses historically have had in obtaining decent roles. Even Cicely Tyson, who has finally attained recognition as one of America’s foremost dramatic actresses, struggled for twenty years before she reached her present status. Her case is an exceptional one. Quite often, veteran black actresses shoot into the limelight by capturing one plum role only to subsequently fade into movie land or theatrical oblivion. The careers of Beah Richards, so rich as Alex Haley‘s old aunt in Roots II, Juanita Moore, Imitation of Life‘s mother par excellence and Ethel Waters, Julie Harris’s friend and surrogate mother in A Member of the Wedding bear witness to this all too prevalent trend.

But times seem to be a changin’. Nowadays, there are a substantial number of black actresses who have gained a certain measure of success, prominence and steady employment while still in their twenties and thirties. Nowhere is this more evident than in the theatre.

Dee Dee Bridgewater‘s first success was as a jazz singer, having warbled with such greats as Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach. Her three albums were well received, and she’s won Downbeat’s Vocalist of the Year poll twice.

It was Dee Dee’s musical career that first brought her Broadway notice. She was awarded a Tony for her portrayal of Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz, in which she sang If  You Believe. She must have believed in something, because it wasn’t an acting performance so much as the good fortune to sing the play’s climactic ballad which won her the coveted award, There were whispers in 1975 that the members of the Tony nominating committee had intended to choose Clarice Taylor or Mabel King [the other witches] over Bridgewater but couldn’t tell the two apart.

Now appearing in The 1940s Radio Hour, Bridgewater is one of the most memorable elements of the sweetly sentimental show. Her Rose of Rio and Night and Day numbers smolder as her character adds black glamour to Broadway. Even if she never enacts a dramatic role, Dee Dee Bridgewater has made her mark on the Great Black and White Way.

Dee Dee’s co-star in the film The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh is Debbie Allen, who has thus far bubbled under full-fledged stardom. Josephine Baker told her she was the only one to play her as a young woman, but the film biography was never made.

Debbie returns to Broadway as Anita — the old Chita Rivera role in the revival of West Side Story, due in February. The role made Rivera a star, won an Oscar for Rita Moreno and should be a good vehicle for Allen, no matter how old the material may be. Her flash and spunk are perfect for the role, and with the electric Hector Mercado as Bernardo, she should tear up the stage with fireworks that will make the Fourth of July look like mid-January. The two of them should make even contact lenses steam up.

Talk of success always entails considering the compromises that were made along the way. The theme was developed in a television movie entitled Hollow Image, which was broadcast in June. Hattie Winston played Ivy, a popular singer whose romantic and racial ties occasionally came undone. Winston herself doesn’t have the problems — she’s deliriously happy being married to arranger composer-pianist Harold Wheeler and well remembers fainting while picking cotton in Mississippi. Twelve years ago, she was a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), and after several Broadway shows, she is right back with the Ensemble Company this season. Her roots are strong.

Hattie is an exciting singer. Her nightclub act three years ago was one of the best of that season. Recreating some fond memories, she opened with I Got A Name, doing away with the notion of invisibility for good. She closed the evening with a rocking version of By The Time I Get To Phoenix, which made you ready to buy tickets to wherever her little heart wanted to roam.

The NEC’s first show of the season, Dan Owens’s misconceived The Michigan, let Winston laugh and cry with fellow con artist Douglas Turner Ward, but to little honest effect. She might have better luck with the second play in the series, Home by Samm Art Williams [the actor whose play Brass Birds Don’t Sing comes to off Broadway next year, hopefully with the same power as it had at the Manhattan Theatre Club last season]. Winston will co-star with L. Scott Caldwell and Charles Brown.

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