The great American jazz singer and songwriter Alberta Hunter is the subject of Leaving the Blues a new play by celebrated LGBTQ author, poet and playwright Jewelle Gomez. This two-act, eight-actor, multi-character drama with songs will feature the original song, “Lettie’s Blues”, by the world-renowned musician/composer Toshi Reagon.
Leaving the Blues is the second work in Words and Music, Gomez’s trilogy about African-American artists in the first half of the 20th century, and will be produced by New York City’s oldest and longest producing professional LGBTQ+, award-winning theatre company TOSOS (The Other Side Of Silence). TOSOS produced the first play in the trilogy, Waiting for Giovanni, about James Baldwin and written with Harry Waters, Jr. last year.
What does a nurse who is told to retire at age seventy (but who is really eighty-two since she once lied about her age) do next with her life? Leaving the Blues opens on the day of Alberta Hunter’s retirement from nursing, when she is despondent and cannot imagine what comes next. Half singing, half whispering, she tells her unseen patient with some evident sadness, “Trouble, looks like I had it all my day … looks like trouble will follow me to my grave.”
But what if, as she reflects on her last day of work, a ghost suddenly appears in tux, white gloves, and top hat from her past circuit-club days of the 1920s-1950s, dancing across the floor, fanning with an old picture of himself smiling in blackface? And what if said specter insists she get on a waiting train to revisit her past? What is a woman to do but get up and go?
Hop onto that imaginary train with famed African-American blues and jazz singer and songwriter Alberta Hunter as she follows the long-dead black comedian Bert Williams (Will), now her glad-handed guide and conductor. After all, he is promising to stir up enough memories of her past successes, friends, and loves to encourage her to return to the successful career she left some twenty years past in the late 1950s.
Hunter’s life story, rife with danger and uncertainty but also thrills, lays bare the tension that our racial and sexual histories create inside all of us and the danger that history can be to our ability to love.
“I’m always searching for stories that reclaim the LGBTQ community’s presence and participation in our country’s history and culture. So, ‘Leaving the Blues’ is a perfect fit for us,” said TOSOS artistic director Mark Finley.
“Not only does this beautiful play celebrate the perfectionism and drive of Alberta Hunter the artist, but it also humanizes the sacrifices she made to survive in a world determined to minimize her. Jewelle Gomez writes about the collision of racial and queer identities against a rich shifting time/place backdrop with a grace and poignancy that continues to startle, amaze and inspire me. And the music is awesome. I’m so excited to be working on Leaving the Blues!” – Mark Finley
Leaving the Blues is produced by TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence), directed by Mark Finley and begins previews January 16, 2020 at The Flea Theater, where it runs through February 8, 2020. Performances are at 7pm, Wednesday-Saturday (Tickets start at $30, plus a $2 renovation fee).
To purchase tickets or find out more information, visit www.theflea.org. Tickets are also available by phone at (866) 811-4111, and at the box office of the Flea Theater located at 20 Thomas Street, New York, NY from 12:00 PM – 7:00 PM on weekdays, and 5:00 PM – 7:00 PM on weekends.
For more information about The Other Side of Silence, please visit www.tososnyc.org.