Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit

Pegasus Players

The Nat King Cole Story (Unforgettable)

Black Ensemble Theater

By Kelly Kleiman

In a 1988 article, feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh tries to list the everyday benefits of being white, the conditions she did not earn but which “I have been made to feel are mine by birth, by citizenship, and by virtue of being a conscientious law-abiding ‘normal’ person of good will.” Among them are these: “I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race” and “I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection of my race.”

Two new musical biographies depict the absence of this privilege–the privilege of unself-consciousness. The subjects of The Nat King Cole Story (Unforgettable) and Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit, about Marian Anderson, could not simply be singers. Anderson was routinely introduced as “the great Negro contralto,” and Cole’s popular television show, originally subsidized by the network, had to be canceled because no company would sponsor a show featuring a black artist. Each struggled unwillingly with competing identities: artist versus activist, individual versus group member.

These two plays address the toll taken on the people whose lives highlighted civil rights injustices, people in conflict not only with a society that wouldn’t give them their due but with their own dreams of living free of their group identity. It wasn’t enough that Nathaniel Cole was a wonderful pianist and singer–he had to fit into the role assigned African-American musicians in midcentury America, assuming a comic title (“Nat King Cole,” like Old King Cole) and an unfaltering smile. And he had to consciously decide whether to entertain white audiences while audiences of his color waited outside. White artists could choose to pay attention to that issue or not. Cole had no choice in the matter.

Neither did Anderson. A concert singer of arias and European art songs, she aggressively refused to be defined by her cultural heritage. Though she sang the gospel standards demanded of a “Negro contralto,” she used the formal diction of her classical training. She spent years in Europe (where the issue of skin color was less charged) and married a man who could and did pass for white. But despite all her efforts her skin color remained paramount; the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing in Constitution Hall in 1939. Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to do so at the Lincoln Memorial instead. Presto! Instant symbol.

The two plays have virtually identical scenes in which the artists face a press hotly demanding to know why they perform for segregated audiences. In this awkward situation, both Cole and Anderson reply as artists: Cole says that the black audience was just as well entertained as the white, and Anderson that she should be spared questions “exclusively within the Negro-ness of my life.” Both replies seem sadly lacking–they’re the words of people who didn’t measure up to what the times demanded and who betrayed others’ battles for justice. But it seems they were forced to choose one betrayal or another–of art or of justice. It was not the individual artist but the culture that failed to measure up.

Playwright David Barr III and Pegasus Players thoughtfully explore these tensions in Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit. An early scene in which Marian’s grandmother (the splendid Cynthia Jackson) resists Marian’s study of opera with an Italian voice teacher is the first of many times Barr reminds us to wonder what, and who, the singer will have to sacrifice to pursue her career. There’s a traditional weepie narrative here–“artist gives up all for art”–as Anderson loses not only her personal life but her cultural heritage. Yet that’s never entirely gone, as the powerful opening scene makes clear: Anderson is announcing her retirement in her best European-diva manner when a Senegalese impresario (Chavez) asks why she’s never been to Africa, intoning “Mother Africa is calling you.”

But what kind of mother is Africa? Is she like the one Anderson evokes in “Ave Maria” or is she a Medea? Anderson herself raises the issue. After watching newsreel footage of African victims of war, she asks, “If the crime of slavery had not occurred, what would my life be?” Is it another betrayal of her heritage to be grateful for being an American, with opportunities and privileges, when that status was conferred by others’ slavery? Anderson thinks so, calling her reflection “shameful to confess.”

There are failures of subtlety in Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit, and the show runs too long. Anderson’s visit to an overseas slave transit camp, where she learns to “forgive but never forget,” feels tacked on, as does her reconciliation with her husband (the charming Craig Boyd). But if the play is flawed, it’s only because it’s too ambitious, trying to squeeze into one evening the singer’s eventful life, the history of the civil rights movement, and significant interludes of music and dance.

Greta Oglesby puts control–emotional as well as vocal–at the center of her fine portrayal of the adult Anderson, and she has the courage to be unsympathetic. Bereniece Jones, who plays Marian as a young girl, highlights her vulnerability and fluidity and has a remarkable voice. They are well supported, particularly by Jackson, Chavez, and Llou Johnson as Paul Robeson (though Johnson’s singing isn’t really up to the impersonation). Director Ilesa Lisa Duncan illuminates Barr’s themes while moving the play’s numerous incidents along briskly. Musical director Matt Long produces a rich sound with nothing more than the performers’ voices, his own piano accompaniment, and the extraordinary drumming of Calvin Newman.

The orchestra for The Nat King Cole Story (Unforgettable), by contrast, is so big and loud–especially the horns–that it overwhelms the voices, the strongest element of this weak show. Though the astonishing Mark Townsend provides a perfect imitation of Cole’s singing and adds his own considerable warmth, charm, and musical skill, he’s stuck in the middle of a play that has yet to be written.

Every interesting thing in this Black Ensemble Theater production happens offstage. Someone runs up to Cole, for example, and says, “How do you feel about the riot at your last performance?” Or Cole muses aloud, “I fell in love with someone new.” These asides might have worked if writer-director-producer Jackie Taylor had constructed the piece as a revue (like Sinatra: The Man and His Music), an approach that would also have better showcased Townsend’s talents. But in this format–discrete scenes alternating with musical numbers–Cole’s short life takes many hours to come to its end.

Still, even the most poorly constructed glance at the work of African-American artists reveals the cost that racism imposes on them–and on the rest of us. It’s a revelation that never seems to stop being timely.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.