New Play Spotlights Alberta Hunter

by Jean Schiffman

Jewelle Gomez’s “Leaving the Blues” opens at New Conservatory Theater this month.

One day, several decades ago, local writer Jewelle Gomez took her grandmother to The Cookery in New York to see blues singer Alberta Hunter (1895-1984), who was then in her 80s and was making a comeback after years of not recording or performing (she’d been working as a nurse). “Look at all these young women,” said Gomez, of the audience. “Can you guess why they’re here? It’s because they heard a rumor that Alberta was a lesbian.” “Oh, everybody knew that,” shrugged Grandma, who’d been a chorus girl in the ’20s and ’30s, Hunter’s heyday.

From that point on, Gomez was fascinated with Hunter’s story and researched it extensively. It was after she’d had several conversations with blues and jazz critic Chris Albertson (who wrote the biography “Bessie,” about blues singer Bessie Smith) that she thought, “There’s a play in there.”

Gomez grew up in Boston listening to all kinds of music on the radio: Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, Country-Western, Carmen McCrae, Betty Carter. But Alberta Hunter: “She was a real representative of the period from which all these other [jazz and blues] singers sprang,” says Gomez, whose award-winning novel “The Gilda Stories,“ which she adapted for a stage production by the Urban Bush Women, is among her many published works.

Now, her new, two-act, eight-actor, multicharacter drama with songs, “Leaving the Blues“—the second in a planned trilogy of African-American artists in the first half of the 20th century—opens at New Conservatory Theatre Center (which also premiered the first play in the trilogy, “Waiting for Giovanni,” about James Baldwin, written with Harry Waters, Jr.). It is coproduced by the Museum of the African Diaspora.

Chris Albertson himself inspired one of the characters in the play, which is a fictionalization of Hunter’s life that spans the ’20s through the ’80s non-linearly. Two other characters are based on real-life people: Hunter’s longtime lover, here called Lettie, and Lettie’s Uncle Will, a version of the vaudevillian Bert Williams, who indeed was the uncle of Hunter’s lover; here, he is a trickster-ghost who has a “kind of contentious and loving relationship” with Alberta, says Gomez. “None of it’s meant to be biographical,” she adds. “I was trying to extrapolate the essence of who I perceived them to be.” Others, purely fictional, include a pair of tap-dancing male cousins from Louisiana who are keeping two big secrets, and a young African-American woman singer on tour with Alberta.

“Much like when I worked on the James Baldwin play, I wanted to pick a pivotal plot to work around,” says Gomez. “Why did she stop singing and why did she go back?”

“After the war… everything shifted,” an aging Alberta, who’s long since retired from the stage, tells Will in Act I. “Nobody wanted my old songs anymore.”

To find out as much as possible about Hunter’s life and times, Gomez not only read such books as David Levering Lewis’ “When Harlem Was in Vogue” and a biography of Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, but she also studied Hunter’s collected papers, held at a research center at the New York Public Library: holiday cards, correspondence. She learned that Hunter was a regular contributor to charities and had received a thank-you note from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference signed by Martin Luther King. “That was very moving to me,” says Gomez. “She saw herself as being a contributor to culture, not just a famous star.”

With scant evidence about the exact nature of the relationship between Hunter and her lover, Gomez imagines a lifelong conflict between them: Alberta fears that if she is known as a lesbian, her career will be ruined—and she worries about being brought up on “morals charges”—but her secrecy about their affair is deeply painful to Lettie.

In devising a structure for the piece, Gomez decided to begin not at the beginning, with Tennessee-born Hunter stepping off the train in Chicago and becoming a star, but at a crossroads: Alberta, who has been working in a hospital for a long time, must make a decision about whether to sing again or not. “Why would she go back?” Gomez wondered. “I needed to go backwards a bit so we can see what she’s been through. Then I realized I needed to know why she stopped singing.… Alberta wasn’t as pretty or as light-skinned as the critics liked, and that bothered her. I used that as one of her tender points.… She wrote many songs for herself and others. But what happened when suddenly Elvis is singing a popular blues song, ‘Hound Dog,’ that was already popular in Alberta’s day, first sung by an African-American woman [Big Mama Thornton]? How does she feel about that shift in the culture? I wanted to explore that.” And she wondered about Hunter’s breakup with her lover: “Maybe that was a reason not to sing anymore.” The plot, the structure, the characters and dialogue—all this emerged from bits and pieces of research, says Gomez, and dramatic necessity.

One of the first images that Gomez created, and one that she kept in mind during the play’s development period, is the mask, a motif that appears throughout. Uncle Will carries a church fan with a blackface picture on one side (Bert Williams did in fact perform in blackface) and a picture of Martin Luther King on the other; it represents the mask Alberta—“a strong-willed lesbian,” says Gomez—and the tap-dancing cousins, with their hidden selves, must wear.

Throughout the play, Alberta sings fragments of several more of her own songs, notably the raunchy “My Handy Man.” Musical arrangements and direction are by Scrumbly Koldwyn; stage direction by Arturo Catricala.

“Music was such a big part of the ’20s and ’30s and… all the things we think about when we think about African-American culture all connect on some level to music,” muses Gomez. But at the end she wanted one original song, and asked singer/composer/musician Toshi Reagon to write something that would capture an ultimate realization about love that is the culmination of Alberta’s two-act journey, a journey that is both troubled and joyful. 

Mar. 3 → Apr. 2

New Conservatory Theatre Center

25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco 861-8972