By Ben Joravsky
Most of the audiences at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie see the main character in Oliver Goldstick’s play Dinah Was as a fuzzy figure from the distant past. But she’s very real to Clarissa Smith and Estrellita Dukes–Dinah Washington’s sisters.
The notion that their older sister’s life–and her passionate, self-destructive genius–is onstage for thousands to see is both exhilarating and a little discomforting. “It’s a tremendous production,” says Smith. “The actors, scenery, and presentation are very good. However, some of the ‘facts’ are not factual. We’d like to set the record straight.”
Most of the best-known facts of the great R & B singer’s life are captured in Goldstick’s play, including her rise to the top of the charts, her battle against bigotry, and her inner torments. It’s the smaller, more personal details that upset her sisters. “She was my sister,” says Dukes. “I knew her in a different way.”
The play opens in 1959, when Dinah’s already a star. But for her sisters the story begins in Alabama, where their parents, Alice and Ollie Jones, were raised. “Dinah was the only one of us born in Alabama,” says Dukes. “That was in 1924. Her real name is Ruthie Lee Jones. She was named after our grandfather Rufus.”
In 1928 the family moved to Chicago. “My father came here looking for work, and he found a job at a factory on 76th Street,” says Dukes. “They lived on the south side, and the church they joined was Saint Luke’s Baptist, at 36th and Indiana.”
Over the next 16 years three more children were born–Harold Kirkland Jones, Clarissa, then Estrellita. “We were living in Ida B. Wells when I was born,” says Dukes, referring to the CHA complex. “After I was born my parents got divorced, and we lived with my mother, though we saw our father all the time.”
When Dukes was born, in 1944, Ruth was 20. She’d already changed her name to Dinah Washington and was a rising star. By 1947 she was the “Queen of the Jukeboxes,” with a number one hit–“I Want to Cry”–and a large enough following that she could make almost $15,000 a performance. In 1948 she bought her mother and siblings a home in Lawndale, at 1518 S. Trumbull, which is where Alice Jones lived almost until she died, in 1992.
In the play, as in other accounts of Washington’s life, Ruth and her mother fight a bitter generational war. But Dukes and Smith insist the antagonism wasn’t nearly that intense. “It’s true we were a religious family and my mother never really reconciled herself to the fact that Ruth stopped singing in churches,” says Dukes. “My mother didn’t approve of Ruth’s lifestyle–the drinking, swearing, and husbands. Dinah was married seven times. But just because you don’t get along with someone doesn’t mean you don’t love them. My mother loved my older sister. There’s this sinister side to the treatment of my mother, and it’s not fair. My mother was her own person. She never finished high school, but you would never know it. She was a very intelligent and enterprising woman. She had a beautiful voice–she sang gospel in the church choir–owned a music store that sold religious material, and was adamant about us getting an education. She used to tell us, ‘Either go to school or go to work. But you’re not laying around here doing nothing.’ Dinah never finished school, and that bothered my mother. But the rest of us did. My sister and I became schoolteachers. My brother’s a judge in California.”
In the play Alice Jones appears in several flashbacks as a mean and narrow-minded fundamentalist who cruelly torments her daughter. “They had their fights,” says Dukes, “but who doesn’t? I didn’t always get along with my mother. I don’t always get along with my son, as much as I love him. He tells me, ‘Mama, when are you gonna let me grow up?’ I say, ‘When I decide to.’ That’s the way it is with parents and children.”
Dukes and Smith say they stayed in constant touch with their older sister and her family. “Dinah had two sons who were close to us in age and were more like our brothers than nephews,” says Dukes. “In the early days they lived with us, though they later moved to Detroit with their mother. In the summers Ruth took me and my sister and my brother and her two sons everywhere with her. I remember going to the Howard theater in Washington and the Apollo in New York. She spoiled us. She always bought us presents. Especially at Christmas–that was her favorite holiday.”
Smith was a bigger fan of Dinah Washington’s music than Dukes was. “Dinah was my favorite,” Smith says. “I collected all of her music.” Dukes preferred younger singers. “Jerry Butler, the Impressions, the Temptations, and Sam Cooke–I still have all those 45s in my basement,” she says. “But I loved Dinah’s voice. Whenever she came home she stayed with us in Lawndale. She drew a crowd. She signed autographs. She gave people gifts. The woman was born generous–there are people all over the west and south sides who can tell you about her big heart.”
But during the last decade of her life Dinah Washington drank too much and took too many diet pills. She died from an overdose on December 14, 1963, when she was only 39. “We got the call at three in the morning,” says Dukes. “I heard my mother on the phone outside my bedroom. I heard her say, ‘Dead.’ I thought she was talking about her uncle Henry, who had been very ill. When I heard it was Ruth I was devastated. Until then I had not experienced any death in my family. I took it very bad.”
The funeral was held at Saint Luke’s. “There were hundreds of mourners,” Smith recalls. “Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin both sang. I think Aretha sang ‘Precious Lord (Take My Hand).’ A few days later we went up to Ruth’s house for Christmas. Usually Ruth came to my mother’s house for Christmas, but that year it was going to be different. She had married Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane, the football player. He had some money, and he didn’t have to be taken care of. They had a real home. Ruth had already wrapped everybody’s gifts. She really wanted us there. So there we were on Christmas unwrapping the presents she had wrapped and reading the cards she had written. I’ll never forget what she gave me that Christmas–a chinchilla stole.”
“To a lot of people, Dinah Washington’s a star,” says Dukes, “but to me she’s my generous big sister. Because of her I got to do so many things. I grew up in the house she bought us and went to college with the money she gave us. My mama used to say, ‘You’re just like Ruth,’ meaning we’re strong willed. But Dinah was more generous than me. God bless my sister, she was generous until the day she died.”
In the years that followed, the sisters moved on with their lives and careers. Smith and her husband, Eugene, had two children. She earned her master’s degree, taught music at Calumet High School, and is now a counselor at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. Dukes graduated from college, got her master’s degree, got married, and had two sons. She’s now chairman of the social studies department at Whitney Young High School.
The last few years have been hard for Dukes. Her oldest son, Brandon, died in a car accident, and she suffers from degenerative arthritis. “Most of the time in school I use a battery-operated wheelchair,” she says. “The students say, ‘Here comes the speed demon.’ They part when I’m coming, just like the Red Sea. I love teaching–it’s been a great career. The children and teachers were so wonderful to me when Brandon died. I still haven’t gotten over that. I never will. You just don’t get over losing a child. You expect your children will outlive you. I understand how my mother must have felt when Ruth passed.”
Neither Smith nor Dukes planned to see the Northlight production. But Richard Friedman, Northlight’s managing director, extended an invitation, and the sisters decided to attend the December 10 production. They almost didn’t make it because on December 9 George Jenkins, Washington’s oldest son, was killed in a train accident. He was 53.
“They didn’t want to go–they were too sad,” says Eugene. “But I said, ‘You have to go. People are expecting you.'” So Clarissa and Eugene Smith, Dukes, and Washington’s surviving son, Robert Grayson, rode in a limousine to the theater.
They liked most of what they saw, though they didn’t approve of the way their mother was portrayed. “I knew her mother–she wasn’t like that,” says Eugene. “But I know this is show business. People will take that creative license.”
The show’s cast and producers say they’re aware of the family’s objections, but they politely disagree. “I did a hefty amount of research into Dinah Washington, because I wanted to represent her right,” says E. Faye Butler, who plays Washington. “Sometimes I think I’ll never be through researching. I mean, this is Dinah’s hometown. There are still a lot of people who remember her. After every show someone comes up to me in the lobby with another story about Dinah. I think we’re accurate. I know there are things in the play that must be difficult for the family, but I hope they can enjoy the production.”
They did. Eugene Smith says, “I’ll tell you this–the woman, E. Faye Butler, who played Dinah, she was outstanding. She has a voice, my Lord. It’s just like with Dinah. A voice like that is a gift from God.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.