Laiona Michelle Channels Dinah Washington

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Monday February 5, 2007

It wasn't until 1959 that Dinah Washington broke into the pop mainstream. That was with her #1 record What a Difference a Day Makes, which won her a Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues performance. Though she was hardly an unknown to large segments of the public: she had been singing since 1943 when she joined Lionel Hampton's band. Recordings opportunities soon followed, and the young singer with the big bluesy voice and perfect diction soon was working with some of the best jazz musicians of her era. By the 1950s she was dubbed Queen of the Blues because of her unique style that brought to mind Bessie Smith; and her records were so popular that she was given another moniker-Queen of the Jukeboxes. Musician Quincy Jones, who worked with her in the 1950s and was one of her lovers, summed it up succinctly when he said "every time that Dinah Washington sang a song she put her stamp on it."

Washington, he continued, "could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator and you would've still understood every single syllable."

She also cut a glamorous profile. Growing up in Chicago in the 1930s, she told her mother that she wanted to be a showgirl, and, once famous, lived out her dream in her extravagant wardrobe. She was often seen dressed in furs and shiny gowns with a handsome man on her arm. She saw to that as well, having been married seven times in her short life. Comedian Nipsy Russell once joked that Washington didn't need a marriage license - officials could just stamp the old one and give her a transfer.

It was, sadly, her obsession with image that led to her untimely death in 1963 at the age of 39 when she ingested a fatal combination of prescribed diet pills and sleeping medication. Some thought her death a suicide, but Washington's biographer Nadine Cohodas thinks otherwise. "She had mixed up the pills and taken just a couple extra, and enough to be lethal doses ... it appears to have been a complete accident."

For Cohodas there was a great poignancy to her untimely death. "Dinah was so desperately concerned about how she looked in terms of the size that she was," she told NPR on what would have been Washington's 80th birthday. "And in her short life and all of her adult life there was a pretty much ongoing struggle to be thin. And she never took drugs - everything that Dinah took was prescribed. That doesn't it make any less dangerous, and in a way sadly she was ahead of her time in this obsession in wanting to be model-thin, and it was ultimately killed her."

Today, despite her extensive recording catalogue, Washington is a figure not as well known as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, or Sarah Vaughan. Her early death no doubt contributes to her lack of visibility - she was, though, in her time a larger-than-life figure known for her extravagance, generosity, and wild temperament. She was known to have thrown glasses at audience members when they refused to be quiet while she was performing, and her problems with the men in her life reflected the bluesy songs she sang. She was every inch the diva who took her title of the Queen of the Blues most seriously: when she was performing in England, she purportedly said "...there is only one heaven, one earth and one queen...Queen Elizabeth is an impostor."

All of this, and more, is touched upon in Dinah Was, Oliver Goldstick's biographical play with music that is having its local premiere beginning on February 15 at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre with Laiona Michelle playing the jazz great.

Michelle came to the role after being spotted by the Merrimack's Artistic Director Charles Tower when she was playing in a production of Intimate Apparel at the Virginia Stage Company. "He offered me the job, and sent me the script," she explained during a rehearsal break last week. "After reading the script, and listening to the music, I was just honored to take the role and come here to do it. What's great about this job is that this is also my home state - I grew up in Springfield and did my graduate studies at Brandeis. In fact one of my cast members was in my grad class - Jay Bernard Callaway - so we are having a little reunion. So it's a bit of homecoming for me." She joked that she had to move to New York in order to get jobs in Massachusetts, which included an earlier appearance at the New Repertory Theatre in Stonewall Jackson's House in 2000. More recently she appeared in the multi-award winning musical Constant Star at the Delaware Theatre Company, and last year was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for her performance in Yellowman at Washington DC's Arena Stage.

She acknowledged she had never seen Dinah Was before, which ran off-Broadway in 1998, or much about its subject before she took the role. "She's one of those people who kind-of got lost in history. I knew the voice, but I didn't know the women. I knew 'What A Difference A Day Makes,' but that was the only song that I would know. But now after working on the music for so long and I hear her voice, I go, 'Oh, that's Dinah.' She's become a huge part of my life now. I was just having dinner and they were playing jazz vocalist like Billy and Ella, and when Dinah came on I jumped up and said, that's Dinah - I knew her phrasing, her timing, and her licks so well that I recognized it on the spot. But I didn't know much about her before I took the role."

To learn about her she turned to Cohodas' authoritative biography Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington, that brought her insight into her personality; and to the character that Goldstick creates in his play. Set in 1959, it places Washington at the crossroads of the civil rights movement. She is booked for an engagement at a swanky Las Vegas hotel where she is to be the first black performer to play there; but when she's told she must stay in a bungalow in the back of the hotel and enter through the kitchen, she rebels and refuses to move. Hotel policy forbade black entertainers from staying in the hotel. This hotel "`ain't nuthin' but a plantation with slot machines," she declares.

There isn't a moment, even a silence or a break in the action, that's not filled with Dinah's spirit or emotion or thought."

Her sit-down strike prompts a reverie, and her past unfolds around her; from her upbringing in Chicago with her uncaring Mother right through her career and romantic ups-and-downs accompanied by many of the songs that Washington made famous. "The songs are used to express her feelings at that moment with the dialogue fleshes out the rest of the scene. The songs express her emotional state that correspond to the events in her life without making it a musical theatery piece. This isn't a traditional musical - more like a play with songs."

One issue she faced when shaping Washington is how much she should attempt to sound like her, that is how does she find that place where Michelle ends and Washington begins. "I do attempt to sing like her. Although my director has told me, I don't want you to play an imitation. But for me as an actor whenever you play a real person, there's a large part of you that you have to release in order to surrender over to the character. And she's not just a character, she's a human being who lived and breathed. I am as an actor stepping into her shoes, and there are moments when I am singing the song, and my musical director E. Marcus Harper says 'That wasn't Dinah. Let's try another approach.' So I am trying my best to match her tone with my own - I'm trying to get that back phrasing she did with the lyrics, and her ability to tell a story in song. She was a very articulate singer, even with the bluesy and gospel feeling she brings to a song, there was a legit quality to it, in a sense that made her music unique and accessible to a lot of people.

"What's wonderful about my musical director is that he was once an actor, so when we talk about the scene, he's not just making me sound good, we are actually working through the acting. There isn't a moment, even a silence or a break in the action, that's not filled with Dinah's spirit or emotion or thought."

And what does she think was Washington's spirit?

"Dinah's spirit to me is-there's a song that ends Act One that to me captures the whole feeling of who she is-and it is I Want to be Loved. Throughout this whole piece, when I get to that song I say, 'Oh, my God. I know what that is.' I think that's every woman who has been hurt, who has come up against the wall and break through it. That's my grandmother, that's my mother, that's me today. When all you want to do as an artist is go on stage and present good work, and then there are obstacles that come in you're way, you need to overcome them as best you can."

Dinah Was play February 15 - March 11 at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA. Schedule: Wednesday 2:00pm & 8:00pm; Thursday and Friday 8:00pm; Saturday 4:30pm & 8:30pm; and Sunday 2:00pm & 7:00pm. Tickets: 25.00 - $55.00 Standard; $22.00 -$50.00 Seniors; $15.00 Students (w/ ID). 978-454-3926. for more information visit the Merrimack Repertory Theatre website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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