Dorothy Dandridge reached the dizzying zenith of her film career in 1954 when she earned an Academy Award nomination starring in "Carmen Jones." She was young, achingly lovely, and gifted with an extraordinary singing voice. Yet in the waning days of Jim Crow, opportunities to sustain her Hollywood career were pitifully few. She passed up the featured supporting role in "The King and I," a big mistake. Two more starring roles in the next 11 years, a sputtering cabaret career, and a failed marriage followed. Soon she was drinking, bankrupt, dependent on anti-depressants—and dead at age 42.
The downward spiral of Dorothy Dandridge was dramatized last week at the National Black Theatre Festival in "Yesterday Came Too Soon." Across Winston-Salem, there were numerous tributes to African-American heroes and heroines of the past and their tribulations in White America. Paul Robeson and the victims of the Tuskegee experiments were also included in the proud, tragic cavalcade.
But all around town, there were multiple affirmations of enduring achievement amid adversity—powerful manifestations that times had changed since the days of Dorothy Dandridge. For the better.
A Far Cry from the '50s
Star power at the 2003 NBTF is turning into producing power, possibly opening new horizons of opportunity for black theatre professionals. With the encouragement of the Neil Simon Estate, an all-black version of "Barefoot in the Park" was showcased at the festival, starring Kim Fields, the actress who grew up on the long-running "Facts of Life" television series. Now that she's grown up, Fields is co-producing "Barefoot."
Although this version incorporates snips of poetry written by Fields, a pair of a cappela songs written and performed by co-star Tony Grant, and a few shake-and-bake flavorings for the black audience, the rest of the script is purely Neil Simon.
"It's not an adaptation," Fields insists. "It's Mr. Simon's work. The only things that we have to adjust are things like making the rent different for what the rent is today in New York and that kind of thing."
That's a far cry from "Car-men Jones," which required a whole new libretto from Oscar Hammerstein II so that Dandridge could portray Bizet's Carmen opposite Harry Belafonte on the silver screen. Then they dubbed their singing voices!
There are precious few Broadway precedents for all-black casts standing in for all-white characters created by a white playwright. As it happens, Fields has it in her genes: her mom was in the cast of the fabled all-black production of "Hello, Dolly!" starring Pearl Bailey. That show was Fields' intro to live theatre.
While she acknowledges the groundbreaking possibilities of an all-black "Barefoot," Fields' prime mission isn't to bring the production to Broadway. It's to bring playwrights like Neil Simon to a black audience—and simply to play the role of Corie Bratter.
"Black theatre has gotten into such a groove, if you will, of a lot of the same kind of shows, which are incredibly successful and very, very good," Fields explains. "But I'd like to broaden the scope a little bit more. Every black show doesn't have to be musical or the broadest of comedies. Sometime down the road I'd love to do 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.' Yes, I'd love to be able to bring Tennessee Williams to black people. But at the same time, I have very selfish reasons: I'd love to play Maggie the Cat at some point in my career!"
Potential in the Air
Fields' co-producer, Curtis King, feels the time is right for colorblind casting to move into new territory. King, founder of the 27-year-old Black Academy of Arts & Letters in Dallas, has harvested Caucasian classics before in productions for his stage and in L.A. Such productions, he maintains, are more routine than most theatregoers and theatre professionals realize.
"The reality is that on college university campuses, black schools, they do Neil Simon," King asserts. "They do Eugene O'Neill, they do Harold Pinter—they do all these great works. They do the Arthur Millers. Because it's great American theatre."
The National Black Theatre Festival, staged in odd-numbered years since 1989, is a particularly inviting platform for King, who received the NBTF producer's award two years ago. He booked Fields, along with TV stars Ella Joyce ("Roc") and Garrett Morris ("Saturday Night Live"), last September at his 1,800-seat facility doing excerpts from the Simon comedy. The tumultuous reception to the excerpts convinced King to yield to Fields' entreaties to co-produce a full staging.
Bringing the show to Winston-Salem last week was intended to breathe new life—and investor interest—into the enterprise so that "Barefoot" can begin touring in October. With audiences growing larger and more enthusiastic during the three-day run, the strategy seems to be working.
"There are people who have asked me about things like Broadway or a tour that wasn't just for a black audience," Fields confides. "Broadway's going through a thing where certain people are trying to bring more diversity to Broadway. So there's a lot of potential in the air."
Theo Grows Up
And more enterprising activity. Actress/singer/dancer Dor Green has appropriated all the roles in Euripides' "Medea" to herself, bringing her unique production to NBTF in an effort to find venues outside New York for her performance art.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner, the co-chair of NBTF 2003, is taking a route to Broadway that's been tried—with a new twist. Now in his 30s, the former Theo Huxtable of "The Cosby Show" has written a one-man show for himself, collecting poems that he has performed with his jazz group, Miles Long, since 1993. Encouraged by the recent Broadway success of Def Poetry Jam, Warner hopes to raise the bar for poetry shows by moving away from the mike, adding music and visuals, and tapping into his acting talent.
His message goes against the grain of rappers who have stolen the Cosby thunder: "You can be smart and cool!"