Dinah Was

After attending the bittersweet new musical "Dinah Was," one will have an
entirely new reaction to the seemingly innocent term "crossover." This is
the story of Dinah Washington's struggle to break into the white show
business market in the late 1950s. It is based on an actual incident in her
life, when the "queen of the blues" is booked into the Sahara Hotel in Las
Vegas in 1959 only to discover that no African-American performers are
allowed to stay in hotel rooms, but only in trailers in the parking-lot.
Although Nat King Cole had broken the color line before her, she was the
first black woman to play Las Vegas. The lingering racism spoiled the triumph.

>From the opening scene, which depicts Dinah's confrontation with the racist
hotel management, to the conclusion, we are presented with a series of
flashbacks that show how she became "queen of the blues" and poised to
enjoy success in the white world. Cast as Dinah Washington, Yvette Freeman
brings enormous charisma to the role. She sings "What a Difference A Day
Makes," "This Bitter Earth," "Long John Blues" and other Washington hits
with great authority. It would be worth the price of admission just to hear
her perform these great songs, but what you get in addition is the powerful
dramatic tale of a woman constantly beset by conflicts both personal and

The first conflict involves her relationships to men. Dinah Washington was
by nature a strong-willed woman who became even more strong-willed as she
climbed to the top of the music world. She expected her sidemen to defer to
her on stage. In a flashback to the WWII years, we encounter her on stage
with her band, including a sax player named Rollie in soldier's uniform
(Bud Leslie). When he plays a bit too flashily, she takes this as
competition and chews him out in front of the other musicians. He quits on
the spot. She is intrigued to discover that there is somebody who is as
strong-willed as her and she tracks him down to a nightclub where he is
gigging. What kind of man would just up and quit the great Dinah
Washington's band? As she discovers, he is his own man and this has a
powerful attraction on her. They soon fall in love and the chemistry on
stage between Freeman and Leslie comes closer than anything I've ever seen
on stage to the real love between a man and a woman.

Another major conflict is the one between Dinah and her mother Mama Jones,
played by Adriane Lenox. The church-going, puritanical mother disapproves
of Dinah's lifestyle and profession--the blues is the devil's music--but
depends on and even expects material support from her successful daughter.
She expects the fruits of her daughter's labor, but condemns the tree that
bears it. The tension between the two women is conveyed with great feeling
and, like the interaction between Dinah and Rollie, provides the cue for
Freeman's renditions of Dinah Washington classics like "I Won't Cry
Anymore." The way that the songs and the dramatic narrative are interwoven
seamlessly is a tribute to the playwriting skill of Oliver Goldstick and
David Petrarca's first-rate direction.

The major conflict, however, has to do with Dinah Washington's ambivalent
relationship to the powerful world of white show business. Like many blues
artists, her records were deemed "race records" by the white-owned
companies like Mercury. They had a guaranteed market. Any new Dinah
Washington record would be snapped up by black Americans. But she wanted
more. It wasn't just money that she was interested in--although Dinah
Washington both on stage and in real-life enjoyed luxury--it was
recognition by a broader audience.

She begins to "crossover" in the mid fifties, but it comes with a costly
psychic price-tag. She is booked on the Ed Sullivan show, but is told to
keep her arms at her side, and not to move rhythmically. She says, "In
other words, you want me to look white." They tell her that's what she
asked for. It actually was not what she asked for, but only what they were
offering. This was not only Dinah Washington's dilemma, but the dilemma for
black Americans before Malcolm X and the growth of black identity.

The play examines this question of identity in a manner that evokes some of
the more recent cultural studies literature. At one point Dinah decides to
wear a bleached-blond wig, which not only looks comical but is played for
comic effect. (It should be mentioned that "Dinah Was" is filled with many
hilarious scenes. Mr. Goldstick has a true knack for comedy.) She announces
to her entourage that if Doris Day is going to make money singing the
blues, that she has the right to adopt the white singer's appearance. And
then, without skipping a beat, Freeman breaks into a dead-on rendition of
"Que Sera, que sera."

The conclusion of "Dinah Was" coincides with her performance on the stage
of the Sahara, where she confronts the racist white management and tells
the audience "like it is." It is a rousing conclusion to a musical that
grabs your attention from the minute it starts.

Not only does this musical provide solid enjoyment, it also makes you think
hard about the whole question of race, music and the marketplace. Although
your sympathies are with Dinah Washington in her efforts to not lose her
identity in the process of "crossing over" to a broader market, on another
level one can see the positive sides of this process. Another great artist
of the 1950s was thought to be "selling out" when he decided to record with
strings, namely the great saxophone player Charlie Parker. In retrospect
one can now appreciate that these recordings, which were done in
collaboration with Mitch Miller (!) were among Parker's most sublime

"Dinah Was" is very exceptional entertainment. It not only packs the
pleasure of a night with a great musician performing at a high energy
level, it is also an interesting meditation on the problems of the black
artist in the world of white commerce. Highly recommended.

Louis Proyect