Black and blue
The marketers of so-called "race records" -- blues, rhythm and blues, and jazz recorded by black artists for black audiences in the first half of the 20th century -- often conferred royalty on their headliners in an American society that made them separate and unequal in the most mundane daily affairs. Even if they couldn't order coffee at the same lunch counter where Anglos languished, they could hold court onstage for admirers of all races and ethnicities. It was an irony not lost on folks like Duke Ellington, Bessie "The Empress of the Blues" Smith, and Dinah Washington, who amidst a revival of interest in Smith during the '50s was crowned "The Queen of the Blues" by her label, Mercury Records. Fast-forward four decades, and that irony stokes the flaming heart of Dinah Was, Oliver Goldstick's rowdy, bawdy, but in the wrap-up rather cautious demi-musical about Washington. You're not surprised while watching it that ticket sales have been fueled by fervent word of mouth: The Dallas Theater Center has announced a one-week extension of its '99-2000 season opener. And this production, guided deftly and without too much sentiment (at least, not until the unnecessary final moments) by former DTC artistic director candidate David Petrarca, shakes as fast and hot as the tassels on the gown of the divine E. Faye Butler as Washington, belting out how the handsome dentist is gonna fill her cavity in "Long John Blues." One wonders whether this many double entendres (not to mention so many uses of the word "motherfucker") have ever been spun on the stage of Kalita Humphreys.
Saying one thing, meaning another; calling herself one thing, being another -- it was a conflicted state of existence for Washington that generated some of her greatest music and eventually dragged her into a pit of liquor and barbiturates, where she sank at age 39 in 1963, never to resurface. This particular Queen's blood wasn't blue, it was Negro, a fact she is reminded of in the opening (and centerpiece) scene of Dinah Was -- the first black performer ever to headline at the Las Vegas strip couldn't get a room inside the Sahara.
Goldstick's musical is episodic and it flouts the chronology of Washington's life. That gives it spontaneity -- you never know what city or situation you're going to land in -- but also reinforces the varied, confusing, contradictory realities that the foul-mouthed, angry singer traveled in. The show returns again and again to the lobby of the Sahara, where Washington is planted astride her suitcase wearing a white fur coat with only a black lace slip on underneath, slowly getting tanked from nips at her silver flask as management flutters nervously around.
While the experience of segregation was understandably the defining one for a generation of black Americans, the play intrigues us because it suggests Dinah Washington's greatest frustration may have been a more universal one for artists of this era and genre -- am I jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, or pop? It's a silly question, of course, and one that has been thankfully de-emphasized in the latter years of this century. But in Washington's era, it determined a musician's exposure and place in history. "The jazz critics loved me until my record sales went up," noted the white pianist George Shearing decades ago. Washington was adored by Anglo writers when she was strutting through early hits like "Evil Gal Blues," but they turned their faces away in purist disgust when the strings were ladled on for her biggest single, "What a Diff'rence a Day Made." That she refused to abandon her staccato, playful resistance to standard melody, bringing so much independence to the mindless pop pap formula, didn't pierce their puny minds. Meanwhile, white promoters and management drug their feet about bringing Washington to white audiences until "What a Diff'rence a Day Made" made such a financial difference in her career. The singer stood in the center of these push-pull currents, bloodied, unbowed, but drinking and drugging herself to death from the pressure of all that artistic and social rage.
The tragic lives of the great black female singers of the 20th century have been lingered over to the point of leering obsession in print and film, but Dallas Theater Center's Dinah Was strikes a jaunty balance between decay and delirious musical celebration. E. Faye Butler as Washington doesn't really sound much like the original -- she's far less nasal and far more willing to caress the melody and rhythm of a tune -- but she's utterly captivating whether belting dirty blues or whispering a mournful, syrupy ballad. Best of all, she's no apologist for Washington. The Queen of the Blues could be a royal pain in the ass, sometimes because she had to be (club owners accustomed to fleecing black artists come paycheck time might find themselves staring down the barrel of Dinah's pistol if they didn't cough up exactly what they'd promised), but often, toward the end of her flourishing career, because her monstrous ego and voracious emotional needs drove people out of her life. Dinah Was suggests that the most destructive influence in her life may not have been the racism of strangers but the cruel religiosity of her mother (Carla J. Hargrove), a domestic who rejected her daughter Ruth Jones in southside Chicago after the girl switched from church choirs to juke joints. Mama was there throughout Ruth/Dinah's life to remind her child what a disgrace she was in the eyes of God and decent folk, gulping liquor and chasing men and hanging out in the company of homosexuals. (Washington's mother refused to eat at the same table as Rollie, her daughter's gay manager, played here by Jeffrey Hutchinson, but that table resided under a fancy new roof that his career guidance had helped pay for.)
Speaking of the role of Mama Jones, the biggest liability of DTC's Dinah Was is the actress Hargrove, who's simply miscast here. She's way too young and not forceful enough to embody a formidably religious woman able to rattle the confidence of the Queen of the Blues with one disapproving glance. She shows up later, and to much better effect, as a worshipful hotel maid who's invited onstage for a duet with defiant Dinah on "A Rocking Good Way to Mess Around and Fall in Love." Something about this and the show's coda, in which Dinah returns from the dead to marvel at the U.S. postage stamp bearing her face that was issued in the early '90s, smacks of maudlin reparation, both of Dinah's difficulties as a musical ego and as a black woman in a racist society. Dinah guffawing over her postage stamp is one thing, but Dinah allowing a service-industry employee to upstage her at a show? The great Etta James wrote in her autobiography, Rage to Survive, how, when she was a sweet young thing opening for idol Washington, she decided to sing one of Dinah's tunes in tribute to the headliner. James was a little less young and sweet after the drunken Washington tore into her once the set was over. This is the personality we absorb through the run of the otherwise exemplary Dinah Was, and it's too outsized and unpredictable to be contained by these sentimental cages.
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