Singer Alberta Hunter had an extraordinary life. At age twelve, she left her Memphis home for Chicago, where she got her start at a rough club called Dago Frank's. She moved to New York City in the 1920s and became part of the Harlem Renaissance alongside such luminaries as Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. During the '30s, like many black artists, she found refuge from the racism of her native country in Europe and won stardom and acclaim there. Astonishingly, at the age of 59, following her mother's death, she quit her music career to take a nursing course. She worked at a hospital in New York City for twenty years before being forced to retire at the age of 81. At that point, Hunter was persuaded to return to the stage, and her second singing career continued until her death, in 1977.
All of these facts are faithfully recorded in Marion J. Caffey's Cookin' at the Cookery, along with details and quotations taken from interviews, but the script itself seems oddly generic. You never feel that you actually understand anything about this woman that you couldn't have learned from reading a brief bio. And some of the dialogue is frustratingly elliptical. Hunter's lesbianism is mentioned once, then dropped. There's a scene in which a pubescent Hunter breaks into tears because she's been touched "down there." Her mother is angry with her at first, then confesses that she, too, once suffered the same indignity. But we never learn exactly what happened: Were the women fondled or actually raped? Does this event somehow illuminate their close relationship or have anything to do with Hunter's later abandonment of her husband? The script is so hazy that all of the weeping and carrying on seems almost excessive. I can't tell if writer-choreographer-creator Caffey suffered an attack of squeamishness or simply found an unbridgeable gap in the biographical record.
Two actresses carry the Denver Civic Theatre production of Cookin' at the Cookery. Ernestine Jackson plays Hunter, while Janice Lorraine moves from role to role, alternately portraying an impresario; the "ugliest woman God ever put breath in"; a bureaucrat at the hospital where Hunter worked; a singing, trumpeting Louis Armstrong; the show's narrator; and the young Hunter herself. Lorraine is an extraordinary mimic and full of energy. She can do amazing things with her voice, making it emanate from her chest, head, nose or belly at will. She twists her face and changes her speech for every one of her myriad personae, but she never seems to fully inhabit these creations. Her impersonation of Satchmo brings down the house -- deservedly, perhaps. The actress copies his expressions, the way he shaped his mouth, with complete fidelity. If you close your eyes, you could almost swear you were hearing Armstrong sing. But the highest form of impersonation brings the ghost of the original into the room, and this presentation felt more like a trick than a tribute.
Ernestine Jackson is a wonderful performer, as sophisticated and controlled as her co-star is manic, delivering Hunter's songs with relaxed confidence and a honeyed, seductive warmth. She has us laughing with "Rough and Ready Man," takes us to the party with her when she sings "My Castle's Rockin," and captures our fascinated attention with the sexy double entendres of "My Handy Man." The songs are accompanied by a first-rate quartet.
In fact, the music might have ultimately rescued the evening if it hadn't been for the ugly, sound-distorting mikes shadowing the women's faces. Alberta Hunter herself didn't need a mike, and she told Dick Cavett as much: "What did we know about a microphone? Even when I was entertaining the soldiers in World War II, I didn't have a microphone." And in a venue the size of the Denver Civic, the human voice should certainly be able to prevail. Particularly when it's the voice of Ernestine Jackson singing the music of Alberta Hunter.
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