On a recent rainy Monday night rehearsal of Jewelle Gomez’s new play Leaving the Blues, two actors ran the lines of their first scene together. Michael Gene Sullivan (recently on stage in She Loves Me at SF Playhouse) materialized inside of a hospital room where Desiree Rogers tended to a patient. In their various approaches and hesitations with the script, you could see them thinking through the dialogue, puzzling out their motivations and their relationship to each other in this particular context.
Director Arturo Catricala listened to their concerns and carefully nudged them forward, subtly moving his hands in the air as if to conduct their words and movements. One particular line caused a debate about exposition versus telling the story’s emotional truth. Gomez tells the story of Alberta Hunter (Rogers), a Blues singer who abandoned her music career in the 1950s. She subsequently became a nurse until her comeback in the late 1970s.
Sullivan’s character is a ghost from the past who encourages Hunter to start singing again. No longer a household name, Hunter’s fame has long been eclipsed by contemporaries like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. In writing the play, Gomez introduces Hunter to audiences who may have never heard her name or her voice. Additionally, the playwright has to create a compelling narrative for the audience in the theater, or as she puts it “a dramatic kernel to build around.”
Gomez admits that it was hard to balance.
““You don’t want too much exposition because it’s boring. On the other hand, there are certain things I want people to know about her,” she says. “There are basic qualities about her that I think are important to understand ourselves. Whenever you’re seeing a play or a movie, it often comes back to, ‘What is it you’re learning about yourself?’ This is a play about possibilities for me.”
For one, the possibility of living a life more fully. According to Gomez and her research, Alberta Hunter “goes through life feeling like she has to hide who she was as a lesbian, that she has to be very ladylike and cover over — what I think of as — her very butch qualities,” Gomez says. “When I think about what that could’ve done to her, how it could have embittered her and hurt her, shriveled her.”
But what inspired Gomez to tell her story in the first place was not another bitter showbiz tale: She actually saw Hunter perform in New York before her death in 1984.
“I feel very excited that she actually lived long enough to play at The Cookery in Greenwich Village that would be packed with lesbians, even if she never said the word lesbian in her life,” Gomez explains. “I went there I’d say probably four times and every time I went, half the audience was young lesbians. It was just so beautiful to see a woman of that age [Hunter was born in 1895] having this great, sparkling personality, having fun singing.”
In order to capture her spirit on stage, casting the lead actress for the part was crucial for the show to succeed. Gomez had previously worked with Rogers on Waiting for Giovanni, a play she co-wrote with Harry Waters Jr. about the writer James Baldwin. “Desiree played Lorraine Hansberry and, in fact, she was the only female in the whole cast. She’s both charming and tough at the same time, which is really the quality that I saw in Alberta that we’re trying to balance. Because Alberta had to be tough to make it through the business at that period, to keep the rights to her songs, to fight off male aggression.”
Tough up to a certain point: Hunter gave up singing in public for at least twenty years. It’s still not entirely clear why she did so. As if posed to her ghost, Gomez asks the question, “Why did she stop singing and why did she go back?” She read and studied everything she could but emphasizes that it’s her writer’s imagination filling in the blanks because “there hasn’t been that much explicit about why she stopped singing. Some of it is, the music really was changing by the time she stopped doing live shows.”
Rock and roll arrives on the charts in the 1950s, the same decade that Hunter decides to call it quits. Early James Brown, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis: in Gomez’s imagination, “Alberta doesn’t really see herself in that mode.” What she did see was a triumphant return to the stage by a once closeted performer who was her grandmother’s age. “It was amazing and I thought, ‘This is her liberation.’ That these women heard her secret and it drew them to her as opposed to what she’d always feared, that it would repel people.” Gomez eloquently added, “We let things pass us by because we are afraid. She decided to come back out and sing. She didn’t decide to come back out and sing because she was a lesbian singer, but they were there and I want us to think about what are we going to pass up because we’re afraid.”
Leaving the Blues, March 3 – April 2, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 415-861-8972 or nctcsf.org