Thursday, July 2, 2009
Common Ground Theatre is staging a world premiere musical about the lives of jazz vocalists Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. The oldest African American theater company in San Diego is also under new leadership. Arts producer Angela Carone has this story.
There are certain unforgettable voices in the history of jazz. Two of those voices inspired local playwright and actor Anthony Drummond to write Jazz Queens Cast Blue Shadows, a musical about the lives and music of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. Anthony Drummond set the musical in a jazz club, which he describes as "the happenist, swinginest, jumpenist jazz joint you've ever been to." Drummond is acting in the play as well, as a mystical MC who transports the audience through time into the lives of his jazz legends.
This is a jukebox musical and in between performances, we learn about the colorful and often tragic lives of Holiday and Washington. Holiday's battles with drugs and abusive men are well known, but Dinah Washington's story is less familiar. Drummond says Washington was the most fun to write Dinah "because she was so outrageous." Washington was a true diva who married 8 times and insisted on being called the queen. But she also encountered plenty of racism and sexism. She was a dark-skinned black woman with a full figure, which, in those days, made it hard for her to break out of the club circuit and find broad commercial appeal. But in 1943, Lionel Hampton invited Washington to sing with his band. Hampton liked her strong voice because it carried over his horn section, but according to Drummond, not everyone understood his choice of a new lead singer. "When he brought her on the bus and introduced her to the other band members he was quoted as telling some of the band members 'Don’t look at her, just listen to her,' because they were like, Oh, my god, that's our new singer?
When Drummond first started writing this musical, he took a draft to Dr. Floyd Gaffney, the longtime artistic director of Common Ground who died in 2007. Hassan El-Amin was also mentored by Dr. Gaffney. He says Dr. Gaffney "could identify talent when you didn't even know the talent existed." El-Amin recently stepped into the role of artistic director for Common Ground, a role that has been vacant since Dr. Gaffney's death. El-Amin says, "You know, I'm not Dr. Gaffney, no one can replace Dr. Gaffney. Dr. Gaffney's shoes are sitting there I'm just trying to put mine next to his, stand upon his shoulders and engage the community again.
El-Amin is taking over a theater company in the midst of a recession which portends a difficult road ahead. But El-Amin is optimistic because of his theater's history: "When you talk about economics, you talk finance, you talk about granting, all of those things have been a struggle but even with all of that, this theater still has a 46 year history.
In the meantime, El-Amin and his cast focus on the show and their goal of reviving Common Ground's voice in the San Diego theater community.
Common Ground's Jazz Queens Cast Blue Shadows runs from July 9th to the 26th at the Lyceum Theater in Horton Plaza.