Dr. Myers Inquires and Inspires: Rebel WITH a Cause … or a Few (Spiritualism, Protest, and History)

BY LARRY MYERS **** (Editor’s Note: Now back in NYC, Dr. Myers reports on some memorable moments “On the Road” to San Francisco earlier this year.)  Rebel Cabaret performers and playwrights look at the crux, foundation, essence, raison d’etre to discover our sources for why we bother to write.  I perceive my inner being/soul as a kaleidoscope.  This instinctive faith in theater arts as redemptive and transformative is what makes many of us get out of bed.  My own playwrights company has taken on Found History as its current  thrust.  My Kerouackian “On the Road” journey has taken me from Carefree, Arizona, to San Francisco to Lancaster.  Researching America’s earliest dwellers I found artifacts at Cave Creek Museum dating to 0 A.D.  Going deeper, and studying Native American ritual and meditation, I’ve unearthed fascinating phenomena — all imminently theatrical.

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.”

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.