LEAVING THE BLUES: A play with Music about Blues legend Alberta Hunter
People in the Bay area and around the country know that incredible theater productions are oozing out of every corner of San Francisco. I love the theater and when I hear about a production I often hesitate. Parking is a bitch and getting to SF from Oakland is usually the slowest drive for seventeen miles ever. Last night I ventured out to the New Conservatory Theater Center to see Jewelle Gomez’s world premiere play Leaving the Blues. It is one of the wisest theater decisions I’ve made in a very long time.
When Queen Latifah starred in HBO’s Bessie (2015), we got a glimpse into the world of Black blues and jazz singers of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday and Alberta Hunter were the “stars” of this era. All were revered on stage but little did the world know that when the lights dimmed and the doors closed that all were living societal mandated secret lesbian lives.
This brings me to Jewelle Gomez’ brilliant new play. Desiree Rogers channels Alberta Hunter from nuance to song. Within minutes, Alberta Hunter had arrived. I didn’t know anything about Ms. Hunter with the exception of loving her song “My Handy Man”. Luckily Desiree Rogers aka Alberta Hunter wowed us with this song which resulted in a thundering round of applause.
The story of Alberta Hunter reveals a talented singer who was self-deprecating regarding her looks. “Too dark and too wide a nose”. Putting this insecurity aside, she is driven to succeed. Like Josephine Baker, she is the darling of Europe. It is also in Europe that she can feel some sense of comfort in her relationship with Lettie (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Lettie). But Alberta never feels that she can share her feelings for Lettie and the truth of their relationship to even her close friends. It is multi-decades old “public secret” that lasts until her death at age 89.
Gomez masterfully utilizes Hunter’s life story to educate us all. In the span of the fastest two hour play I’ve watched in a long time, we walk side by side with Hunter from young woman until at the age of 83 she returns to performing at The Cookery in New York City. As the play came to a close I wanted more. All of us did. We settled for a standing ovation for the cast. Kudos to Jewelle Gomez for bringing Alberta Hunter back to life.
Leaving the Blues is currently at the New Conservatory Theater Center in San Francisco until April 2, 2017. To coin a phrase, “Run, don’t walk, to see it.”