Blues singer Dinah Washington was raunchy and wise. She was savagely ambitious, despite racism and battles with drugs, booze, parasitic no-show men, and a harshly critical mother. Her stormy short life‹she died of an overdose at 39 in 1963‹was a story of inner demons and self-reinvention.
Award-winning actress Lillias White, who recently took over the title role in the biographical musical "Dinah Was"‹which opened at the Off-Broadway Gramercy Theatre, June 9‹acknowledges that she treads a thin line between impersonation and interpretation: "I strive to sound like Dinah, capture the flavor of her music and voice, but I can't say that I'm impersonating her." White is not happy with the idea that she's "interpreting her" either.
"I work hard to play her truthfully, down to the bone. I have to be especially careful not to make her a cartoon figure because she was real," notes White with whom we meet in a Thai restaurant near the theatre on East 23rd Street.
On the other hand, there are certain freedoms that come with playing Dinah. "She told it like it was, used street language, loved dirty jokes, and hung out with musicians. She was one of the guys. [She slept with or married a fair number of them.] If she didn't contribute to the image of female performers as loose women, she certainly didn't curtail it, either." White laughs; it's a robust sound.
The 40-something Brooklyn native is the quadruple-crown winner of the 1997 Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and the People's Choice Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. She earned the multiple honors for her performance of Sonja, the benign hooker in "The Life." Earlier Broadway credits include: "Cats," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," and "Once on This Island."
An actress-singer for 20-plus years, White concedes Dinah is one of the more emotionally charged roles she has played‹"I use the 'n' word and that makes me uncomfortable." She adds that black and white audiences have different responses to the show: from its humor to the racism depicted throughout. Dinah can not get a room in a Vegas hotel, although she's been hired to perform there.
"White audiences think that stuff is over. They're wrong. Black audiences‹especially older ones who can relate to Dinah's life‹know that racism is ongoing, although it's more subtle. In hotels, restaurants, and boutiques African-Americans are just treated differently. Yesterday, I was at the airport and walked up to the counter on the first-class ticket line. The woman behind the counter looks at me and says, 'First class?' " White hints at a tone of sceptism and thinly veiled irritation.
Offstage she's a composite. She is religious, (says grace before eating); voices lively inner-cityisms (addresses the reporter from time to time as "girlfriend," "girl," "honey," and "baby"); and, she is an old-fashioned romantic. "I love the black-and-white sentimental movies!" When we first met White a year ago in her dressing room at "The Life," she had decorated it with waves of pink chiffon, rippling from ceiling hooks down to the floor.
But it's White's humor that's most notable. Contrary to what one might expect, the real challenges in "Dinah," is not the loftier issues, she says. "It's memorizing all the songs and words. It's like a club act, 14 songs, five nights a week, and five performances on weekends!"
White's early goal was to be a nurse, although she sang and danced and took ballet lessons. Perfomance was in her genes. Her aunt, Lillias White (same name) was a member of the June Taylor Dancers, the first black dancer on board. And her parents‹a car painter and domestic‹frequently took the family to "shows, and plays, and everything at Radio City."
At City College, White joined the Demi-Gods, an on-campus theatre group founded by CCNY staffers playwright Joseph Walker‹who later went on to win the Tony for his play "The River Niger"‹and Dorothy Dinroe Walker, his wife. "The training was extensive and we were taught to be proficient in singing, dancing, and acting." White launched her professional career with a stint in a New York Theatre Ensemble production.
A turning point for White was working with director Michael Bennett when she enacted the tormented Effie in the Los Angeles production of "Dreamgirls." "I resisted playing Effie. I didn't sing like the character, and I didn't feel any particular connection to her. Michael brought out the Effie in me. Michael taught me how to dig deep into myself. For the first time I felt free to use my own experiences, not to imitate someone else on stage."
She adds candidly, "At City College, I was thrown out of the Demi-Gods because I frequently didn't show up. Still, it hurt. I buried those memories for years, until Michael helped bring them to the surface. Being in touch with those feelings made it easier for me to understand Effie."
Although White is most identified as a singer, she prefers to define herself as "an actress who sings, as opposed to a singer who acts. I believe acting is the weightier of the two art forms. If you're a good actress you can make people believe that you can sing or dance or do anything. The acting comes first."
A Sucker for Romance
If White had her druthers, she'd play Katherine in "Taming of the Shrew" and be cast as a romantic lead in a play or film. "Usually romantic leads are ingenues. I'm no ingenue, but I can still be romantic. I think it's time audiences see characters in love who ain't ingenues. We more-mature divas need love too!"
Her most immediate ambition, however, is to get the chance to reprise the role of Dinah Washington in the movies. She is convinced the timing is right. The packed audiences at the Gramercy Theatre testify to the fact that Dinah is hitting a responsive chord. But then there have been a number of plays recently championing those larger-than-life figures‹from Patsy Cline to Diana Vreeland to John Barrymore, among others.
"There's a mystique, a romanticism about them and the era in which they lived," notes White. "And that includes Dinah. Segregation was in play, but in many ways black people did better than they are doing today. At least they knew the parameters. You knew who hated you. Today, you don't. Everyone is taught to smile and be politically correct. And although the glass ceiling was clearly in place, the dollar stretched much further. Everyone lived better for less. A show like 'Dinah' appeals to nostalgia."
Having said that, White makes it clear that she does not believe that the blues sensibility and its star are of a historical period and thus acceptable in a way that they might not be if the the work were set in the present.
White is convinced Dinah could be a contemporary mega-star, "not unlike Madonna in her outrageousness. She was also way ahead of her time in her understanding of the business world and its marketing strategies."
On the contentious issue of the blues‹many women today find them impossibly self-flagellating‹White insists there is nothing dated about them, whether or not they affirm feminist teachings. "No, baby, women are still crying. The blues are honest. Part of the problem are the psychiatrists and therapies and medications like Prozac. They all help mask true feelings. Instead of Prozac, get a few Dinah Washington albums, honey, sit down in the living room, put the lights out, and listen to her singing the blues. Cry along with her. Then get a life, throw that s‹t [the psychotropic drugs] away!" q