Friday, April 17, 2020


So as the YouTube spiral continues during these quarantine times, another video has me in a nostalgic mood connecting threads of my theater loving life. I recently saw the clip from the Tony Awards© with Jennifer Holliday and the cast of Dreamgirls.   

I remember seeing it on TV at the time, processing its fabulosity, while the signature song from the show, And I’m Tellin’ You I'm Not Going, climbs the charts. It made Texas native, Jennifer Holliday, a breakout star.  While living in P.Y.T. Texas (Pre You Tube) , my theater experiences were very limited.  It wasn’t until I moved to Austin from Galveston that I felt comfortable enough to see and participate in more theater locally.  Since my Texas days, I have had many opportunities to meet and interview legends of the American theater and see their work on stage.  However, there are great performances that happen in places other than the Great White Way. They are just as compelling, riveting, and memorable, as if you were walking out of the Imperial Theater on a chilly winter night in 1982. 

For me, it was a Sunday matinee performance of DREAMGIRLS at the Zachary Scott Theater, Spring 1995. I, along with one of my dearest friends, Len, were volunteering as ushers so we could see the show. Another one of my dearest friends, Ms. Treens, was also the stage manager for the show and kept saying to me, “you are not gonna believe how good this show is!”  She also said “black folks are gonna lose their minds when they see this show.” She was right, because I did not know what was going to happen.   For a community theater, we were living with only having The Wiz, Bubblin’ Brown Sugar,  and Ain’t Misbehavin’ to fall back on as black musical theater performance options.  Once On This Island was performed in the previous seasons, but it was still new to us. It had not earned its current status in black musical theater history just yet. 

From the moment the house lights went down and those voices and music turned up, I lost my ever loving mind. Chile, Dave Steakley directed the *ish out of that show.  The gowns, the wigs, and the moving sets turned me OUT! Seeing people of color just sassing it up while singing their faces off was amazing, but I can not forget the performance of the actress who embodied my First Effie White, B. Iden Payne© Award Winner, Jacqui Cross. Honey, I had never seen anyone like her.  At that performance baby, she SLAYED!! She blew the roof off of that house.
With Emmy Award© Winning, Loretta Devine
 In that climactic moment near the end of Act One when everyone gangs up on Effie about her size, missing shows, etc., and Deena is acting all innocent knowing full well she’s been sleeping with Curtis right behind Effie’s back, stealing her place as lead, all while being careful enough to not get pregnant in her quest for fame.  As that scene started, I felt goosebumps because my empathy for Effie was growing. By the time the bells chimed in to start that famous anthem, I was a wreck. It was the first time that I cried in a live performance.

At that time, I was winding down my days in Austin, as I prepared to take the big leap and move to NYC.  I have always been in the battle of the bulge my entire adult life, and this quarantine is not helping. I knew then that moving to New York was the right thing to do. However on that day, the only questions marinating for me: where was Jacqui Cross in that moment, and who did she channel to find the character? Why? Because an angel came out of those vocal chords that day.  The lights came up, and there was not a dry eye in the house, except for my friend, Len. Not that he wasn’t moved, but theater is not his jam like that. I have never forgotten that moment. Don't even get me started with her costume change DURING the I'M CHANGING number. In the audience at that same show was one of Austin’s premier cabaret/piano bar goddesses and local celebrity, Margaret Wright, and even she was doing the Oprah ugly cry at her seat.
Tony© and Drama Desk© Award Nominee, Author, Activist, Sheryl Lee Ralph

At different times during my radio career, I have met and interviewed the 3 Original Dreamgirls, Tony© and Drama Desk© Award Nominee, Sheryl Lee Ralph (Deena), Emmy© Award Winning Loretta Devine (Lorel), and Tony© and Grammy© Award winning Jennifer Holiday (Effie). Each and every one of them could not have been kinder, more generous, and funnier. These sisters are still working on a screen or stage near you.
Tony© and Grammy© Award Winning, Jennifer Holliday
Looking back, I now know that I needed to experience that performance as a boost for my love of theater. It also reminds me that for every diva that I have seen grace a Broadway stage, there is a Jacqui Cross in their hometown bringing folks to tears, too.  Being blessed to see so many AMAZING performers and shows, I will never forget my first Dreamgirl. FYI, Ms. Cross is still turning it out in Austin, Texas. She still stays very active on the theater and music scene.  Her talent is a testament that great theater performances anywhere will stay with you forever.  Now go wash your hands.
©2020 Keith Price

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