As Black Theatre Troupe deserts its longtime home, the dilapidated downtown Helen K. Mason Center, for the polished Herberger Stage West, the 33-year-old company has found a marketing niche. Dinah Was, Oliver Goldstick's biography of blues singer Dinah Washington, is the latest in a string of tune-filled profiles of ill-fated black vocalists -- including Mahalia Jackson and Alberta Hunter -- with which the company has scored.
Musical biographies of tragic African-American female singers are, it would appear, the black theater box office equivalent of Neil Simon comedies.
"They always sell tickets," according to BTT artistic director David Hemphill. "I suppose because anyone who knows and likes the music of the singer is likely to turn up to buy a seat."
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Selling tickets is paramount as the tiny company prepares for Herberger residency. While playing the tony venue has boosted BTT's profile (ticket sales for a recent Herberger production of God's Trombones surpassed sales of BTT's entire last season), it's also bumped up production costs. Hemphill's answer was a quick reshuffling of the troupe's current season, with Dinah Was, starring up-and-comer Evelyn Brown-Gray, as its featured program.
Washington's story certainly fits the tragic black blues singer profile BTT has portrayed in the past. Lionel Hampton discovered her in 1943 and, after notching several jazz hits with his band, she launched a solo career that took a quick left turn into rhythm 'n' blues and pop. Thanks in part to the diversity of her material, Washington became wealthy, a rarity among black artists of her generation. "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes," Washington's biggest solo hit, marked her entry into the mainstream pop market in 1959 and the beginning of a rancorous relationship with music critics, who accused her of selling out. The usual excesses followed and, after overspending and overimbibing, Washington wound things up in 1963 with a (presumably accidental) overdose of diet pills. She was just 39.
Brown-Gray likens Washington to Whitney Houston, "whose life is very tumultuous and who is struggling against public opinion these days." Washington's story, she says, is like so many others.
"Billie Holiday and those other ladies like that from the past, they all seem to go through the same things -- very tumultuous lives, struggling in the white-dominated field of music. So many of them die at an early age because they can't take the pressure of the business."
The actress is particularly moved by a scene in Goldstick's play -- a by-now requisite scene in any biography of a black performer. "There's a part in the play where Dinah is out on the road, and she can't get a room in a hotel, even though she's headlining at the hotel."
It's all been done before, but Brown-Gray is confident that Washington fans will like Dinah Was -- even while she's concerned about the audience's reaction to the late lady's demeanor.
"If people are sympathetic toward her at the end of the play, it's because of the way it's written," she says. "Dinah was a hard, cold woman and a very mean person. It's difficult to like her, but I hope people will walk away with a little more knowledge of who she was."
Brown-Gray feels little obligation to owning that knowledge herself. Although she studied Washington's way with a song, she's fine with portraying Washington without knowing much about her.
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"I'd heard of her," she says, "but I'm totally unfamiliar with her. I listened to the CD they sent over, but I couldn't really do a lot of research about her. Most of my inside information about Dinah came from the script, because there's not a lot of information out there about her."
In fact, there are several Web sites devoted to Washington's career, as well as James Haskins' excellent Queen of the Blues: A Biography of Dinah Washington. But it's Washington's name -- and Black Theatre Troupe's shiny new home -- that will sell tickets to Dinah Was, not whether the actress playing her knows anything about her life and career.
"I can't even imagine why the critics were so mad at Dinah," Brown-Gray muses. "Maybe because she was always singing about her troubles. She never really had any super-happy songs. But then, she didn't have a super-happy life, either."