San Francisco’s recent offerings at the New Conservatory Theatre Center’s New Play Development Lab included Leaving the Blues, a new biographical play with music about the internationally known cabaret singer Alberta Hunter (1895 – 1984; pictured below). Playwright Jewel Gomez spoke to me at Dogearred Books on Castro Street in San Francisco. She stated,”Little by little, bits of a story evolved around Alberta. I came up with a Ghost Vaudevillian (her lesbian lover Lottie Tyler) ‘s uncle. His unique costume includes a mask with Martin Luther King in jail on one side and blackface on the other. From there, the themes of masks we all have to wear emerged. By bio-mythography — making her life into a myth– we can see and feel essences of her meaning for us. Today we must look to the past to see possibilities for our futures. With today’s Trump, openly embodying negative, destructive egocentric ways, we see things will become worse before better.”
Immersed in Native American investigation, I first visit a regional production of Hand to God and at Berkeley Rep as I was in the neighborhood with eco-demonstrators speaking at the University of Berkeley. The boisterous, relentless verve of this play is indicative of a new breed of neo-Beat Cabaret needed for our troubled era. Jason, a Texas teen has an innocent-looking sock puppet named Tyrone. Jo Winiarski has designed a spiffy, pop art set lit by ingenious Alexander V. Nichols. Joe Payne’s provocative sound and Amanda Villalobos’ puppets expertly accompany Danielle O’ Dea’s choreographed fighting. Intriguing about Robert Askins’ play is that it journeyed from Off-Off to Off- to Broadway, whereupon it was heralded or caused people to bolt the theater in droves. This peculiarly foul-mouthed anti-Christian polemic seems apt for our “grab her pussy” era. What starts out as a Grand Guignol Saturday Night Live skit morphs into a bellicose, atheist scream fest. This dark comedy ventures way beyond gallows humor.
Unfortunately, the infantile sex jokes exemplify the pronounced anti-intellectualism which has somehow gripped our nation. Not all the “basket of deplorables” are hypocritical Christians, nor are they sexually repressed or nymphomaniacal– possessed or not possessed. The loud-mouthed, unfocussed foray needs nuance or enlightened, informed referents. This play might be improved with any measure of subtlety and contrast. However, sadistic satyr plays and anarchistic puppet brigades might further the crusade of Progressives.
Years ago I interviewed controversial Julie Bovasso. She said to me, “You have to just be psychotic to try to be a playwright nowadays.” A particular masochistic madness possesses dramatists called to compose new stage works..
Bovasso’ s comments seem timely now. In my Native American investigations I’ve uncovered a wealth of never–
reported, never-studied information. To me, these facts and incidents deserve stage time now. Playwrights in any Outlaw Cabaret might risk being called potential terrorists now, not just provocateurs, contrarians or activists. Today, any young person moving to Manhattan attempting to write plays will have to survive in an overpriced crawlspace slightly larger than the coffin he/she will be buried in. You want to try to be a playwright? Here’s a shovel– Start digging.
The New York Times has just discovered writing about gay history; it’s like they just discovered the lost tribe of the
homosexuals. When might they consider covering Native Americans? Meanwhile, in a post-cyber era, older playwrights who’ve been at it several decades are expected to just labor away like Keebler elves.
Exposing elitism, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, deportation, arrests for protesting just may begin with the New Standing Rock in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Called to continue the impetus and vibration of my response to the North Dakota situation with “horizon hiccups/hemisphere hemorrhage” my Lancaster Stand Arises ignites. Particularly engaging for me is that many Lancaster participants are older folks. I have lots of older actor friends who appreciate a good part. Researching Senecan Indians who lived in Lancaster area, I came upon another Senecan who made a visitation to a Minnesotian, urging him to journey South to establish a snowbird home for Lily Dale Spiritualists from the Buffalo area. Lily Dale is the spiritualist center of America — a town which talks to the dead. Mae West cut the ribbon on the church there. Sir Arthur Conan, Doyle, Susan B. Anthony (who began the Women’s Movement there), Deepak Chopra, and James Van Pragh have been frequent visitors. After the 2010 HBO documentary No One Dies in Lily Dale, the mecca has become very commercialized. This is explored in my play Postmark: Lily Dale. Years back, I visited Cassadaga, Florida– the Lily Dale of the South — penning a monologue play, Cassadaga Conversations. March 12 is the simultaneous birthday of Edward Albee and Jack Kerouac. When I was invited to conduct an onsite séance on Cassadaga premises I booked passage. The fact that Academy Award-winning actress Louise Fletcher starred in a horror film set at the hotel I’m staying in has further fed my interest.
There will be much more on Lancaster Stand to follow. It seems important to point out that Jack Kerouac was profoundly influenced by Native American spirituality. Although a Conservative Catholic, Kerouac wrote a massive Dharma workbook. Additionally he created the first American novel with an African-American heroine – The Subterraneans. Edward Albee was an eco-turmoil prophet with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Seascape. Albee’s significant contribution was his lifelong involvement in educational theater. Establishing Sag Harbor Center, he nurtured many dramatists. My Playwrights Sanctuary plan was to turn my own family’ s Western Pennsylvania Victorian mansion into an analogous venture. Albee endorsed this and insisted upon writing a personal letter to be given to each participant. As documented in this article, I sold the premises and decided to go on the road.
Alberta Hunter began singing in a Tennessee bordello where her mother was a maid. Ms Gomez recounts how she first was taken by her grandmother, singer/chorus girl Lydia Morandes, to Manhattan’s Cookery, where Hunter appeared. When Jewel said to Gram, “Ms. Hunter is rumored to be a lesbian,” Gram replied, “we all knew that!”
After whorehouse performances, Alberta Hunter sang at Chicago’s whites-only Panama Club. She peeled potatoes as her day job. She persisted — and landed at Dreamland Ballroom making $35 a week. In the 1920s she recorded for Black Swan, Paramount, Gennett, Victor, and Columbia. She wrote “Downhearted Blues,” but it was secretly sold
to Columbia Records to be recorded by Bessie Smith.
In 1928 Hunter was Queenie opposite Paul Robeson in Show Boat in London. She recorded Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets (She’s Unable to Lunch Today” when she sang at The Dorchester Hotel. Moving to Manhattan, she sang with Bricktop and Louis Armstrong. Upon her mother’s death in 1957, she was so grief-stricken that she vowed to never sing again. And she didn’t– until 1976, when she attended a Bobby Short party for Mabel Mercer. Jaqueline Kennedy immediately asked to do a biography on her. But Hunter did not like her ghostwriter and the plans were abandoned. Upon her comeback, the singer toured Europe and South America.
After her mother’s death she lied to say she had a high school diploma and lied about her age to get a job at New York City’s Roosevelt Hospital. Much later, when the institution demanded she retire at 70 (she was really 82), she returned to singing. “She was a tough cookie,” Jewel Gomez said, “but any assertive woman is called a bitch. I don’t know if I channeled her, but I felt I had to write about her to protect her. I many times start with a specific place I want to be and put my characters there. I saw Alberta’s lover drinking champagne in Paris.”
Some of Gomez’s dialogue is quite witty. Alberta says, “Whoever heard of a woman named Eartha?. Bessie Smith would roll in her grave.” Gomez reports that she is “not afraid of being censored by the major publishing houses now, as most of my work — Vampire stories & poems –are published by independent firms. However, once a Texas textbook company wanted to delete one line from a poem they wanted to print. I declined.”
Alberta Hunter was born 122 years ago this month and remains a major figure of the blues.