Black History Month is a prelude to an event we have been eagerly awaiting for months: the world premiere of Jewelle Gomez’s Leaving the Blues. The play, presented and commissioned by New Conservatory Theatre Center (NCTC), includes music and imagines the life of legendary Blues singer-songwriter Alberta Hunter (1895–1984).
In this new play by the celebrated Gilda Stories’ author, Hunter is backstage preparing for a professional comeback, knowing just how many doors to the past it may open. Spanning 60 years, Leaving the Blues imagines a journey through the public life Hunter led as an African-American musician, the private life she hid as a lesbian, and the ghosts that won’t let her forget.
Gomez never forgot the multiple times she saw Hunter perform at the Cookery in Greenwich Village in the mid 1980s. She told the San Francisco Bay Times that she “was mesmerized” by the performer’s energy and charm. “The shows were sold out every weekend and I always came away uplifted by the idea of living that long and still having your art inside you. It was my grandmother, who’d been on the stage herself, who confirmed that Alberta was known to be a lesbian.”
Commissioned to write a trilogy for NCTC, Gomez thought of Hunter again after the successful run of her first play in the trio, Waiting for Giovanni. It was written in collaboration with Harry Waters, Jr., and was a dream play exploring the inner life of author James Baldwin. The work premiered at NCTC in the 2011–2012 Season, and was also developed in NCTC’s New Play Development Lab.
Gomez explained that following such endeavors, “little by little bits and pieces of a story popped up around Alberta: I created fictional characters and embellished small bits I could find about actual people, like her lover. The first image I came up with was the ghost Vaudevillian who guides Alberta’s journey. He’d performed in black face, which was represented by a two-sided, traditional church fan-black face on one side and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in jail on the other.”
“From there,” she continued, “grew the theme of all the masks we sometimes have had to wear. So the piece itself isn’t really biographical, but more like what Audre Lorde called ‘biomythography,’ a mythologizing of her life so we can see and feel the essences of her meaning to us.”
The production of Leaving the Blues has brought together many talents. Its cast features Desiree Rogers, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Michael Gene Sullivan, Jasmine Milan Williams, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Paul Collins, Matt Weimer, and Tai Rockett. The creative team of Leaving the Blues includes musical arrangements and direction by Scrumbly Koldwyn, scenic design by Kuo-Hao Lo, costume design by Keri Fitch, lighting design by Christian V. Mejia, and choreography by Jayne Zaban, and stage management by Kaitlin Rosen.
The production seems especially important at this time, given the political climate and issues we are facing today.
As Gomez said, “Arts and culture are the tools oppressed people can use to survive and thrive. We can look to the past and see possibilities for our future. With today’s administration that openly embodies such negative, destructive and egocentric ideals, things are going to get worse before they get better. But the future is in our hands.”
“Understanding how others faltered and still made it through adversity should give us energy and hope. I’d like people to believe in the power of art and to take themselves more seriously as social change agents.”
Leaving the Blues runs March 3–April 2. Opening night is Saturday, March 11, at 8 pm. Tickets are $25–50 and available at nctcsf.org or by calling 415-861-8972.
During the run of the show, audiences can enjoy these special events: