KPBS AIRDATE: March 28, 2003
She was Al Capone’s favorite singer; she probably made his sloe gin fizz. She jammed with the best of them: Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller. She was the toast of Chicago, then New York, London and Paris. But for 20 years, she stayed out of the spotlight and off the stage, becoming a devoted nurse. Then in 1977, blues legend Alberta Hunter made a killer comeback at the Cookery Club in Greenwich Village — at the tender age of 82. And she was still sizzling hot stuff. Hunter died in 1984, but she was heating up the Cookery till the bitter end.
This is definitely the stuff of drama, and it inspired director Marion J. Caffey to cook up a bio-musical, “Cookin’ at the Cookery.” Caffey also created the African American “Three Mo’ Tenors” and the gut-wrenching Billie Holliday bio, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which tore the roof off the Old Globe in the late 1980s. This show made its regional debut in 1997 and just closed a successful Off-Broadway run. Now the San Diego Rep has brought us the West coast premiere, and it couldn’t come at a better time, when we’re all singing the blues anyway. “Cookery” is a delicious antidote to our stewing thoughts of war. Music, as Shakespeare told us, ” hath… a charm to make bad good.” So, listen up.
The play opens with a sedentary Alberta, bored in her forced retirement (her employers thought she was only 70, but she’d lopped a dozen years off her age!). She gets a well-timed call from an old colleague, Barney Josephson, who invites her to do a gig at his jazz club, The Cookery. This sets the stage for the time-shifting story that moves from comeback to flashbacks — chronicling her childhood in Memphis and her journey to fame. Ernestine Jackson is the rock-solid centerpiece, with malleable, rubber-faced Janice Lorraine joining in as Narrator, young Alberta and every other male and female who was part of the play’s subtitle “music and times of Alberta Hunter.” The story line and motivations are often superficial or sketchy; we get, for example, only vague references to Alberta’s early sexual abuse and later lesbianism, and no mention of her sister, or why her beloved mother never came to see her perform. But ultimately, it’s all about the music. If Jackson doesn’t tear down the house like Alberta did, she sure gives it a good shake. She’s best at the low-down blues numbers, some of which Hunter wrote, and excellent doing double entendres like “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More.” She’s earnest and understated, well backed by the blistering band and blazing lights. But it’s Lorraine who brings the hot sauce to the stage, especially in her tour de force impersonation of “Satchmo” Louis Armstrong. The duets are some of the high-points in an evening that celebrates female spirit, survival and soul-stirring song.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.