From her meager beginnings in Memphis through her rise to international fame and triumphant comeback after 20 years of service as a nurse, the life and times of renowned blues and jazz singer/songwriter Alberta Hunter (1895-1984) is the subject of playwright Jewell Gomez’s heartfelt, humorous, and historically insightful homage Leaving the Blues. Making its New York City debut with TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence) at The Flea Theater, the enthralling and uplifting bio-play is the second in Gomez’s Words and Music trilogy spotlighting African-American artists of the early 20th century, a perfect fit with the company’s mission of exploring the life and culture of the LGBTQ+ community, and a great kickoff for Black History Month in February (with a panel discussion and special guests accompanying the performance on February 1).
The fictionalized memory play with music is framed in the clever device of a train ride making stops at significant junctures in Hunter’s evolution, conducted by her long-deceased friend and cohort Bert Williams (Will), an old Bahamian-American Vaudeville comedian whose goal is to encourage her return to show biz following her retirement from the hospital at the age of 82. Along with recollections of her past successes in music and the close-knit ‘family’ of colleagues she developed throughout her career in both the US and Europe, the meaningful reminiscences focus on the challenges Hunter (and all others in those more bigoted times) faced as a black woman, as well as her concerns about revealing her true sexuality and long-time loving relationship with Will’s niece Lettie – a fear that results in explosive confrontations among them.
Directed by Mark Finley, performed by a terrific cast, and supported by a transporting design, the captivating production is filled with upbeat energy, irresistible personalities, distinctive attitude, and authentic stylings of the eras. Rosalind Brown leads with a stellar portrayal of Hunter, capturing her extraordinary talent and determination, devout faith and inherent dignity, feisty spirit and justifiable anxieties, loving nature and judicious advice, and her aging and maturation over the decades, as times change and the discrimination and distress she experienced earlier begin to lessen (metaphorically “leaving the blues” behind). She also commands the stage with her powerhouse vocals and moves on selections of Hunter’s show-stopping hits, with authentic music direction and arrangements by David Shenton and masterful accompaniment on upright piano by associate music director Assaf Gleizner.
Featured as Will and Lettie are TOSOS veterans Michael Michele Lynch and Joy Sudduth, who ably define their different generations, as the culture shifts from the glad-handed stereotypes of vaudevillian blackface, “Hambone,” and malapropisms (“conversating” and “observating”) to black suffragists, self-pride, and “looking to the future” to end racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Cooper Sutton and Benjamin Mapp turn in dazzling tap dance numbers, good-natured ribbing, and sincere conversations as the Calabash Cousins Calvino and Cal, Hunter’s fellow performers who love and respect her as an honorary aunt, have a secret relationship of their own, and note “the two things people take way too seriously: color and sex.”
Rounding out the excellent ensemble are Tsebiyah Mishael Derry in the dual roles of the respectful ingénue May and the conceited and competitive Blanche; Ameerah Briggs as Hunter’s out and street-smart young neighbor Beebe; and Erik Ransom in the multiple roles of the American Fred, French Jean, and Danish Chris, each portrayed with a recognizable dialect and individualized characterization. All bring singular personality and laugh-out-loud humor to their figures and enrich the comedic aspects of the show.
A well-researched vintage design supplements the fine performances, with precisely recreated costumes by Ben Philipp, a period-style set by TJ Greeway, and props by Bree Williams-Mossiah. Beautiful lighting by Paul Hudson dramatically spotlights the staged segments of singing and dancing, while Morry Campbell’s effective sound design provides background effects of the moving train that transports Hunter and the audience through space and time.
Fans of Alberta Hunter, black history, and gay history are not the only ones who will delight in TOSOS’ stirring production of Jewell Gomez’s Leaving the Blues. This is a show that holds appeal for everyone who loves great writing, engaging acting, vibrant song and dance, and authentic design, so be sure to go celebrate it all at The Flea.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.