Loring Playhouse’s future looks solid

July 22, 2001.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

One year ago, the Loring Playhouse was on the verge of extinction. The Ballet of the Dolls had packed up, and rumors rippled through the theater community that the building’s landlords would remodel for some other use.

In another example of the community’s vigorous health, three small theater companies are calling the 140-seat venue home for the next 18 months and have the Loring booked solid through the end of the 2002-03 season.

“It’s been going very well, and the landlords are thrilled,” said Peter Rothstein, artistic director of Theatre Latte Da.

Rothstein joined with Perin Post of Buffalo Gal Productions and two other small companies last July to take over the space at 1633 Hennepin Av. Pandemonium Theater Company and Minneapolis Actors Theater have left the consortium but Outward Spiral recently joined up when it was time to sign a new lease.

Rothstein’s past season in the Loring was quite successful. “A Christmas Carole Petersen” was a holiday hit and Edward Albee’s “The Death of Bessie Smith,” which starred local jazz legend Shirley Witherspoon, did turn-away business late last winter. Post did two musical revues that did well, and Actors Theater of Minnesota staged “Never the Sinner” in March.

Rick Anderson’s Gaydar Productions is staging David Dillon’s “Party” until the end of the month and the Loring will become a major venue for the Fringe Festival starting Aug. 3.

IN addition to the three resident companies, Mary Worth Theater Company will also produce in the space this coming season, Rothstein said.

Elegy for a Blues Queen

February 23, 2001.By Lavender.

The character simply dubbed “the Nurse” propels gay playwright Edward Albee’s 1960 one-act play, The Death of Bessie Smith, now in an evocative production by Theater Latte Da at the Loring Playhouse. Not only is the Nurse one of the most repulsively racist figures in modern drama, but her mental cruelty borders on being unbearable to watch and take in, as well. Hence, the Nurse rates, paradoxically, as both the play’s great strength and its great stumbling block. For instance, she actually degrades an understandably upset black man named Jack as he’s dealing with the horror that his friend, the blues-singing Bessie Smith, has just bled to death in his car because the emergency ward he has just come from admits only whites.

Fortunately, however, director Peter Rothstein, music director Dan Chouinard, and music supervisor Denise Prosek seem to have recognized that as passionate and as tightly wound as both the play and the Nurse are, the actual depth of her racism can so overwhelm the audience that there’s the danger of them shutting off what was, and still is, a grave social concern in the United States.

The three have reconceptualized the piece so that Bessie’s character doesn't actually appear on stage. She is present in the form of the wonderful singer Shirley Witherspoon, who renders Smith’s trademark songs with haunting melancholy and bittersweet irony. This is a stroke of genius, because it achieves a marvelously mellow contrast to the venomous Nurse magnificently rendered by Carla Noack. We are as revolted by her as Albee intends us to be, but we can also absorb her more fully while appreciating, and perhaps lamenting, the diminished popularity of the artistic gifts of the black woman the production honors and eulogizes.

The Death of Bessie Smith

February 7, 2001.By City Pages.

Director Peter Rothstein has a similar obsession with the voice. He has revised Edward Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith to include seven songs from the singer, played in this Theater Latte Da production by Shirley Witherspoon in an opulent red dress. Smith does not appear as a character in Albee’s original script – she is left out in a smashed car to die a hideous death while her driver desperately seeks medical help, but is refused by whites-only hospitals in the racist Memphis of 1937. Albee’s script focuses on one nurse, a wretched woman with a vicious tongue who whittles away at everyone around her, splashing corrosive words into their faces. It’s a markedly bleak script, and like many one-acts feels somewhat incomplete. Albee’s nurse calls to mind Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; the author has a knack for crafting female characters whose profound disappointments in life emerge as reckless, damaging language. But there is no George here who can answer the nurse’s bile in kind.

In this production, Carla Noack plays the nurse in smirking bully, and it’s a wonderful performance. Despite her loudmouthed racism and perpetual hostility, she’s a damned lively character, smart and funny with a seemingly contradictory love for blues singers. (The again, this country never seems to lack racists who are fascinated by black culture.) We keep waiting for a voice to emerge that will equal hers, and in Albee’s original script none ever does – even the tragic ending simply encourages more cruelty from the nurse. But with the addition of Witherspoon singing as Bessie Smith (craftily staged; the production flits back and forth between a hospital and a smoky performing hall), this production does offer a sort of vocal counterpoint. Smith, dying in an unseen car outside the hospital, might not be able to respond to the nurse, but her gorgeous music, heard throughout, offers its own chastisement. Hers are lusty, sociable, free-spirited verses, and they’re infinitely more appealing than the nurse’s bitter chorus.

Good intentions can’t bridge the gap in ‘Bessie’

February 6, 2001.By Claude Peck, Star Tribune.

The Nurse in Edward Albee’s 1960 one-act play “The Death of Bessie Smith” has to be one of the most unpleasant characters in contemporary theater, and that’s despite unforgettable Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The Nurse is sarcastic, two-faced, uptight, cruel, argumentative, hypocritical, hypercritical and a stone racist.

In Theater Latté Da’s adaptation of “Bessie Smith,” running through the month in Minneapolis, the Nurse (Carla Noack) occupies half the stage, while across from her is famed “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith (Shirley Witherspoon), bathed in a smoky glow, dressed in red and black, singing with great warmth and charisma. The two women at the center of the play could not be more different.

And that’s a problem.

Director Peter Rothstein has chosen to add a living, singing Bessie Smith to his show, though in Albee’s play she is neither seen nor heard. It’s a decision with a major plus side: WE get to see Witherspoon, who has been on hiatus for several years with health problems, back in action. The opening-night audience cheered her as, accompanied brightly by Dan Chouinard on piano, she crooned “St. Louis Blues,” “Gimme a Pigfoot” and other memorable tunes.

But as the drama plays out, Witherspoon and the Albee play remain mostly disconnected, like a grafting that never quite takes. “The Death of Bessie Smith” takes place in Memphis in 1937, the year in which Smith, headed north with a driver to resume a stalled career, suffered fatal injuries in a crash. Thought the historical facts are in dispute, Albee’s play has nurses at two whites-only hospitals tell Smith’s driver, Jack (James Young), that she couldn’t be admitted.

Before that point, we are treated to the Nurse’s invective against, in turn, her father, a black orderly at the hospital where they work and her own boyfriend, a young doctor. This odious role is played with derisive conviction by Noack, who conveys a woman twisted stiffly by her need to put everybody in their place, below her. The only reprieve for the viewer comes near the end, when she breaks down in a spasm of self-disgust, screaming, “I am tired of the truth, and I am tired of lying about the truth, I am tired of my skin…I want out!”

It’s pretty clear why this Albee play is rarely produced. Its most interesting point may be about how whites often are fans of black music but retain their racist views. When we first meet her, the Nurse is playing records by black musicians at home. But her attitudes in the real world would make a Klansman wince. Is that any different from the hero worship of black athletes by white fans who still harbor prejudice?

Rothstein is to be applauded for trying to bring Bessie Smith back to life in this production. The approach beefs up the one-act (the production lasts just 75 minutes) and warms it. But the switching back and forth between her songs (which relate to the plot only occasionally) and the drama creates less cohesion, not more.

The Death of Bessie Smith

February 2, 2001.By Pioneer Press.

Theater Latte Da tackles Edward Albee’s rarely produced play in this new production, which blends the music of “Empress of Blues” Bessie Smith (sung by local jazz artist Shirley Witherspoon) with a drama about personal responsibility, racism and the power of art. Peter Rothstein directs, and pianist Dan Chouinard is music director. The story focuses on staff members of a Memphis hospital in 1937 who refused to admit Smith after she was injured in a car accident.

Bessie Smith Planted in Edward Albee Play

January 31, 2001.By Elizabeth Weir, The Pulse of the Twin Cities.

As artistic director of Theater Latte Da, Peter Rothstein’s passion is to fuse theater and music. Park Square Theatre’s currently running Master Class, which he also directed, is filled with glorious voices and, on February 3, Rothstein launches Shirley Witherspoon, singing the blues in Edward Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith at the Loring Playhouse. “Musical theater is the only performance art form that is truly American,” Rothstein said, “and we want to stretch the boundaries of the form.”

Rothstein’s stretch for this rarely performed, 1960, Albee one-act play is to infuse the piece with the live music of Bessie Smith, something that has not been done before. In the original play, Bessie has no presence at all.

Local jazz legend, Witherspoon, who sang with Duke Ellington in 1969, sings Bessie Smith favorites, like “Kitchen Man” and “Gimme a pig foot and bottle of beer,” songs whose words compliment the action in the play.

The Death of Bessie Smith is about a white emergency room nurse (Carla Noak) in 1937 Memphis, who is unable to reconcile her rigid racism with her love of the music of the great blues singer. The nurse refuses to allow Bessie into the emergency room of her white hospital after a car crash and legend has it that two more hospitals refused to admit the black singer, and she bled to death.

“The play gives brutal insight into racism,” said Rothstein. “One of its central themes is that in a racist culture, the oppressors ultimately oppress themselves.” Rothstein believes that having Bessie represented on stage pack the play with extra muscle. “Bessie Smith serves as the alter ego to the white nurse,” he said. “She lived a liberated, wild, wild life.” In contrast, trapped within the confines of segregation and her stiff white uniform, the nurse lives a shut up tight life.

Much of the action takes place in a hospital emergency room but, in a stage within the stage, Rothstein sets a 1930’s juke joint where Bessie sings a gig. And the joint’s audience slip in and out of roles in the drama that is taking place in the Memphis emergency room.

“We [microphone] Bessie,” Rothstein said, “so that Shirley can sing with force but we can control her voice as the action plays out.”

To gain permission to add the presence of Bessie Smith to Albee’s play, Rothstein had to negotiate with the playwright’s agents for two years. “We can’t alter the dialogue,” he said, “or the sequence of the play.”

In Latte Da’s production, Albee’s short one-act now last and hour and fifteen minutes, with no intermission, and Rothstein harbors hopes for his adaptation. “I’d love to see this go on to other productions,” he said. “The Death of Bessie Smith is a much richer play with the music on-stage-it gives it a cohesion, an art and much more power.”

Latte Da celebrates Bessie Smith in Albee play

January 29, 2001By Southwest Journal.

Theatre Latté Da is turning Edward Albee’s little-known “The Death of Bessie Smith” into a full length work by infusing the music of the renowned singer into the one-act play. The show runs February 3-25 on the Loring Playhouse stage. “We’re setting the play simultaneously in a Harlem nightclub and in the South in 1937, where Albee set it,” said Latte Da’s artistic director Peter Rothstein. “It’s a look at racism, personal responsibility and the power of art. It explores this notion that racism hurts the oppressor as much as the oppressed.” Twin Cities jazz great Shirley Witherspoon stars in the show, under the musical direction of Dan Chouinard.

Heaven’s to Bessie! Shirely Witherspoon feeling fine and back on stage as singer Smith.

January 28, 2001.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Shirley Witherspoon wants it now that she is back.

“I’m open for businss,” she said the other day over lunch, where she discussed her upcoming role as Bessie Smith in Theatre Latté Da’s production of Edward Albee’s “The Death of Bessie Smith.”

It will mark Witherspoon’s most ambitious public performance since she became ill in 1998 and eventually underwent gallbladder surgery.

The Twin Cities singer, whose career stretches back to a stint with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1969, feels good and is taking on the role with her doctor’s blessing and encouragement. After successfully losing some weight, Witherspoon will have to put it back on, in the form of costume padding, to portray the large-boned Bessie.

“I’m petite now,” she said, smiling.

Perhaps, but his new Witherspoon hasn’t lost nay of the oversized zip that marked her performances in local clubs and theaters. In fact, the day she left the hospital in 1998, she went into the recording studio to work on a CD, released later that year.

“She’s got a lot of chutzpah,” said Peter Rothstein, Theatre Latté Da’s artistic director, who got Witherspoon onstage for this project with the help of music director Dan Chouinard.

Chouinard hatched the idea for this piece years ago. He had accompanied Witherspoon’s performance as Billie Holiday in the Cricket Theatre’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” and shortly thereafter read Albee’s spare one-act. Could it be expanded, he wondered, by adding Bessie and letting her sing?

Albee’s play is primarily an examination of racism at a hospital where Smith was brought after a car accident in September 1937. According to disputed facts, she was refused treatment at a white hospital and bled to death from her nearly severed right arm. But Smith and her music are absent.

Chouinard and Rothstein  concocted a show that sets the play within a Bessie Smith cabaret gig, using her songs to help build a new structure for the work.

Jazz to blues

Witherspoon portrayed Smith in Mixed Blood Theatre’s production of “Harlem Renaissance Revue” in the early 1980s, but she’s known more for jazz than blues. Her Challenge, she said, is to transform her vocal instrument for this production.

“We’re giving her all sorts of raunchy material,” Rothstein said.

Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith was the greatest blues singer of the 1920s, with an astoundingly big voice and keen sense of phrasing. She was the highest-paid black entertainer of the era, commanding $1,500 a week, and roared through society with a firecracker personality, huge drinking and sexual habits and a renegade attitude that made her a potent symbol to black America.

Witherspoon, 58, rose up the musical ranks to the point where she caught on for a year of touring with Ellington. She worked primarily in the Twin Cities until moving to Baltimore in 1989. Family issues brought her back within a couple years.

In an interview before departing for Baltimore, Witherspoon said she wanted to be rich and famous. Reminded of that, she chuckled.

“My priorities have changed drastically,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know Shirley Witherspoon pretty well these last 10 years. The younger Shirley was wild, crazy and zany. She was a red-hot pistol. Me and Bessie had a lot in common.”

Now she’s all about taking care of herself. “I intend to be well, I accept being well, I claim being well,” she said. “It’s a hard job, but that’s my life.”

This is only the second or third time Witherspoon has performed in public since her illness, but “it’s the first time I’ve had this much to do. I’m nervous. Real nervous, because I want to do a good job. I’m hoping someone who sees the show will ask me to sing.

She seems genuinely happy to be working with Chouinard and Rothstein.

“I’m having a ball. It gets me up early and gives me something to do. I like working with Dan, whether it’s in a play or not.” She nodded at Rothstein and said, “It feels like I’ve known him for a lifetime. He’s so cute, isn’t he? He’s soooo cute. They’re all my kids.”

Rothstein said this is a serendipitous time to stage a play about Bessie Smith. There are two shows running in New York on the blues legend – one of which stars Jennifer Holiday – and Smith is featured in Ken Burns’ “Jazz” series, currently being broadcast on PBS.

But primarily, it’s a vehicle for Witherspoon to strut her stuff again and let the world know “I’m still kicking.”