Irma Thomas named her 1997 CD The Story of My Life, but she used that autobiographical title prematurely. The rhythm and blues legend -- a.k.a. "the Soul Queen of New Orleans" -- is still going strong at age 60, and now she's opening a new chapter in her storied career, acting and dancing in Simply Irma, a stage production of her experiences written by New Orleans theater veteran Anthony Bean. Playing herself might not seem to be a stretch, but Thomas is discovering the logistics of staging a play.
"Normally when I'm on stage and telling my story, I do it off the cuff," says Thomas, calling during a rehearsal break. "This is a challenge because you have to speak from the script, because of lighting and stage cues, and other people are involved."
In Thomas' case, she's surrounded by an A-list of local talent. Big Easy Award-winning child actress Gabrielle Porter is playing Thomas as a teen-ager, and veteran actress and singer Sandra Richards is playing Ruth Brown, the R&B vocalist who was a primary inspiration for Thomas. Simply Irma also reunites Thomas with fellow New Orleans musical legend Allen Toussaint -- her collaborator on classic hits such as "It's Raining," "Cry On" and "Hittin' on Nothin'" -- for the musical portion of the play. Thomas' co-writer for the script, Anthony Bean (who first collaborated with Toussaint back in the '80s), brings a unique perspective to the material: he and Thomas are cousins.
"Irma and I have been talking about doing something together for four or five years," says Bean. "She finally said she was ready, and I said, 'I want to do a story about you, and your songs and repertoire.' She agreed, and gave me creative control." One of Bean's biggest hurdles was bringing a fresh angle and perspective to Thomas' often-told history: a teenage mother who burst onto the national recording scene, endured multiple marriages and subsequent career valleys, and re-emerged in the '80s as one of New Orleans' greatest musical ambassadors.
"It started out as a one-woman show, like Lena Horne's The Lady and Her Music, but I didn't want it to be an Irma Thomas concert," says Bean. "You can go to Irma's club and see that. I also didn't want hours and hours of sit-down interviews. So there's dramatic scenes, comic scenes, a church scene with a gospel choir; there's maybe 14 total scenes, and 27 songs, with five new ones from Allen. One scene for example, is about 'I Wish Someone Would Care,' which was born out of a no-good marriage. It was the first song she wrote, and she was upset with her husband, but right before she was ready to throw a brick at him, she picked up a pen instead, and out came that song."
Thomas and Bean both say that Simply Irma isn't a definitive chronicle of her life; there's simply too much ground to cover. But in the collaborative process, they unearthed some priceless memories to bring to the stage. Thomas dances in two numbers, including a version of "Hittin' on Nothin'" that faithfully recreates the popular moves of the era. "I gave some of the dance steps that go with the music to the choreographer," she says. The result is Thomas -- in high boots -- leading the cast through "the jerk."
For Bean, one of the highlights of the production was having Toussaint compose a triumphant song for Thomas. "I've heard everything she's done, even some unreleased things," says Bean. "And she's never had a victory song, a song about how she's arrived. That's the finale before the finale, where I envision her in this beautiful gown, by herself, belting out this stirring number. Because while her career is still going strong, here she is at 60 years old, and she's truly arrived."
Even Thomas says that seeing her life portrayed in a new light has given her new appreciation for her accomplishments. For the woman who's always been humble and gracious -- and recently earned her college degree -- the cumulative effect of the stage play is heartwarming.
"I have to admit that having survived, and still having my career, being a viable artist, still active, and still performing, I feel that I'm blessed," Thomas says. "I've always done what I felt was natural, even as a teenager. Some people seem to think I was a miracle worker, but I did what any red-blooded mother would do to care for their children. When your survival depends on it, you do whatever you have to do."
- Irma Thomas is joined by Gabrielle Porter (right) and Sandra Richards (left) in the autobiographical production Simply Irma.