Tommye Myrick has been keeping a secret from us. But now, due to a nasty twist of fate (and of ankle), the secret is out: this lady can act. In fact, she is as formidable in front of the spotlights as she is behind them. Myrick has given us a long series of solid productions and along the way garnered Best Director honors at the Big Easy Entertainment Awards for Fences (which also won for Best Drama) and Flyin' West. But it wasn't until a week before the opening of her latest outing Dinah Was ... that Myrick found herself unwillingly thrust into the oldest cliche of backstage dramas: "The star is laid up (in this case, Sandra Anderson Richards), someone's got to go on."
Myrick, who has not been in front of an audience in nearly two decades, rose to the occasion with flying colors. Dinah Was ... chronicles the messy endgame in the life of singer Dinah Washington. Dinah, we learn early on, idolized her famous precursor Billie Holiday. Last year, we watched Billie Holiday (indelibly portrayed by Troi Bechet) as she lurched around Emerson's Bar and Grill in a fog of alcohol and dope at the end of her career. So the two musicals, like the two personalities within them, resonate with each other; for instance, in a scene where Dinah learns of Billie's sordid, stoned-out death -- a death that prefigures her own.
In any case, Myrick, who also directed Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill, clearly has a special place in her heart for these tragic female troubadours of the blues. And the Dinah she gives us is a fabulous, multifaceted, larger-than-life figure who has grown into a legend. She is generous, cruel, witty, pathetic, valiant and lost. That Myrick stepped into the part belatedly and unwillingly is hard to believe; it fits her like a glove. We see no effort, we sense no calculation. Dinah is. And if she doesn't have 20-carat pipes, she does know how to step right out there and puts across a song. Thirteen songs, to be exact.
The other rock-solid element of the show is the tasty and tasteful five-piece band (music director Sam Henry on piano; Julius Joseph Handy, sax; Albert June Gardner, drums; Doug Therrien, bass; and Al Bemiss, keyboards). The script is a somewhat on-again/off-again affair. We meet Dinah at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas in 1959, where her first big cross-over hit, "What a Difference a Day Makes," has earned her top billing and a sold-out run.
She will be the first African-American woman to star in the prestigious nightclub. Dinah arrives half in the bag, because she stopped at a juke joint on the way. For some reason, she is only wearing a slip. The hotel manager (Thomas Fletcher), who seems utterly devoid of the sleazy savoir-faire one might expect, rudely informs her she has to stay in a trailer, near the kitchen, and that she can only visit the casino if she is accompanied by a white man. Dinah parks herself in the lobby and refuses to budge. She stays unmoved through two acts, despite the efforts of her personal secretary (Tynisa Palmer), her manager (Daniel Laforce), and the genial head of Mercury Records (Glen Gomez). Meanwhile, a foul-mouthed, Mafioso-esque executive manager (Charles Ferrara) threatens to call the police.
While Dinah sits and drinks, figures from her past enter and play out crucial scenes from her life, so we can trace the path that led her to her current impasse. We meet her Bible-thumping, disapproving mother (Glaspar Irons), two of her seven husbands (Don Guillory and Carlton Williams) and, of course, the aforementioned trio of associates. Finally, a girl who works in the kitchen (Glaspar Irons, again) approaches Dinah. The girl, who is a great fan, convinces her that she must go through with the engagement, no matter what.
Cut to the night club. Dinah is introduced. Before she sings, she makes a speech about the racial policies of the club, publicly returns a $3,000 check to the Mafioso, since it is meant to repay her for the indignity of her treatment, and then invites the kitchen staff onto the stage to join her act. They all sing wonderfully, especially the little fan.
The style of Dinah Was ... has been called cinematic, and there's certainly a whiff of Hollywood in this uplifting finale -- just as there's a strong fragrance of Broadway in many of the short flashback scenes. For they indicate, rather than convince. Compared with the grueling portrait of Lady Day in decline that we saw last year, Dinah Was ..., for all its expletives, remains the soft-core version of that particular American pornography: the inner collapse of the overachieving victim.
- Break a leg: Director Tommye Myrick steps in capably for injured Sandra Anderson Richards in Myrick's presentation of Dinah Was ...