Right to Sing the Blues
Pity Rico Burton: She's working double-time to keep Black Theatre Troupe's new show afloat. If Cookin' at the Cookery were a one-woman tribute to Alberta Hunter, and not a musical biography of the legendary blues singer-songwriter, it might qualify as a success. But a ponderous script and deadly direction doom this show, which works only as a pleasant vehicle for Burton's engaging presence and tidy interpretations of Hunter's signature songs.
The rest of the time, Cookery is little more than a leisurely recounting of Hunter's life. Born in Memphis in 1895, she ran away to Chicago at age 12. After making a splash in clubs there, she moved to New York in 1921 and began a highly regarded recording career that often featured songs she had written herself. After a successful tour of Europe, she returned to the states, only to be offered demeaning movie roles, usually playing some white actress' maid. Hunter launched a big-deal USO tour and sang for the troops overseas. While she was in Korea, her mother died, an event that deeply affected Hunter, who abandoned her singing career and became a practical nurse. She didn't sing publicly again until 1977, when the owner of the Cookery convinced the 82-year-old singer to appear at his new club. Hunter performed there until her 1984 death at age 88.
Hunter was a fascinating woman whose story is full of bombshells and twists of fate though you wouldn't know it from playwright Marion J. Caffey's take on her life. Rather than exploring how and why Hunter's style shifted from choir-trained soprano to gritty blues doyen, Caffey merely tells us that it did. There's no exploration of the discrimination Hunter faced as one of the first black singers to tour Europe, or the similar indignities she endured while performing here in America. Her many long-term lesbian affairs are reduced to a quick quip, so we never hear what it was like to deal with that taboo topic in the early 20th century.
Despite several better-than-good performances by Crystal Carol Harvey, who plays everyone from the young Hunter to a middle-aged Satchmo, Cookery chugs along at a sluggish pace. The story whips from Hunter's childhood to her retirement to her comeback in mere minutes, a conceit that requires speedy segues and tight transitions. Director Shirley Basfield Dunlap provides neither, and the result is a fitful, slow-moving reminiscence that doesn't, despite its title, "cook" at all.
Neither does the weary house band, whose turgid tempos keep perfect time with Dunlap's listless direction, but never with bandleader Lawrence O. Dabney's first-rate piano playing. These three youngsters provide sleepy accompaniment that doesn't do justice to Burton's emotive singing, and their deadly delivery seals this show's snoozy fate. I left wishing I'd heard Burton and Dabney, without the soggy script and dreary direction, paying tribute to Alberta Hunter's spirited life in song.
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