Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington Rule In “Jazz Queens”
I slipped into a rehearsal at the Lyceum Theater last week as the cast of Common Ground Theatre was preparing for this week’s opening. I was early for an interview with the director, so I sat quietly in the back row as Candace Ludlow Trotter and a small band performed a tune from the play’s score. At the time, the show was still a few weeks away from opening; thus, the set was bare, there were no costumes, the lighting had not been adjusted, and the bandleader and the director would interject with comments now and then.
Still, it wasn’t long before I was tapping my foot along with the music.
After all, it was jazz and Trotter was performing as Dinah Washington, one its queens. She’s accompanied by Marion Stephen-George as Billie Holiday in the world premiere of Jazz Queens Cast Blue Shadows. Together, they perform almost 20 of the most popular jazz melodies, including “What A Difference A Day Makes,” “This Bitter Earth,” “God Bless The Child,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “My Man” and “Good Morning Heartache.”
From that little glimpse of the show, Jazz Queens is preparing to rule the San Diego stage with the glitz and glamour from Dinah and Billie’s lively careers. As I got my chance to sit and chat with director Hassan El-Amin as well as playwright Anthony Drummond (who co-wrote the show with the late Floyd Gaffney), I learned the shadows these queens cast are not as bright as their music.
“To use a metaphor, Jazz Queens Cast Blue Shadows is getting past the glare of the spotlight that illuminated Dinah and Billie, and looking at the shadows behind the lights that influenced the music they produced. It’s looking at the person, flaws and all, that put out the great music,” Drummond summed up.
Drummond doesn’t consider the show a biographical production, but more of a “poetic mood song,” a phrase he used quite often to classify his work. The story takes historical facts – from the little- to well-known events – and weaves commonalities between the two performers’ lives into one story.
“Anthony has done a great job on his research. Mostly everything we do is predicated on truth, and then we filled in the gaps,” El-Amin explained.
“It’s not a linear story. We’re moving back and forth between places and times,” Drummond added. “We are looking more at themes … to really get the conflict that was dominant in their lives and show how that played out in their music.”
Queens visits both women in live club performances and then follows them backstage for an intimate look at the personal demons and life struggles they encounter on the road to the top of the jazz world. Dinah is visited by the great Lionel Hampton, key to her music success and responsible for her stage name. The plot also follows Billie from the world of prostitution to her struggles with racism, drugs and men. Both women tragically died at an early age from substance abuse.
“What you see on stage is a live club performance,” El-Amin said adding the singers are actually in two different realities because we never see them perform together. “We use the club as the place where you see them shine. In the club, it’s about the song, the performance and the music. The music is what we all know. We don’t really know what their personal life was about.”
“We don’t really know anything about them being back stage, but we use the back stage as the metaphor to the back part of their lives,” he continued. “Once they step on the stage, it’s a big façade because the music is their enjoyment. Once you go back stage, that’s where the façade has to come down and the reality of their lives are exposed.”
While showing their dark shadows, both Drummond and El-Amin were clear to point out that Jazz Queens is still not that dark.
“As a director, as a playwright, as an actor, as a cast and crew, we want you to be entertained. You are coming into our playhouse. We want you to go away feeling good,” Drummond said.
“Absolutely, we want you to be entertained,” El-Amin added. “We want you to have a wonderful evening in the theatre.”
“When you go away and you hear the songs, you can appreciate the artist behind the art,” Drummond continued. “They were real people who aspired to live real lives, who in turn cast shadows of their own.”
Drummond, who also performs in the show, repeated one of his lines from the show. It was the same line he recited as the rehearsal ended that night. “Real people have real problems, even when they are jazz queens.”
Jazz Queens Cast Blue Shadows
Presented by Common Ground Theatre
July 10 – July 26
Performed at the Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Place (in Horton Plaza)
Box Office: 619-544-1000
- July 9: Pay-What-You-Can Preview Performance, whether it is $5 or $500. Seating is limited and admission is first-come, first-served.