Thursday, February 01, 2007

dream, girls

i do believe that it was my brother Damon who gave me a rather contrite explanation for the way things worked in new york city's theater world if you happened to be black. I recall that there was an amen corner of performers present: hard-working industry professionals who had achieved a measure of success and who knew exactly what they were talking about. A few of them were real triple threats, not the fake ones that they churn out in the media to give the illusion of an abundance of talent. At that time, I had just arrived in metropolis and I didn’t know anything about the way things worked – so when they collectively spoke, I listened.

“Pay attention and you’ll see for yourself," he intoned. "when it comes to broadway, they give us one great big splashy musical and one serious play at a time and that’s pretty much it." The amen corner agreed wholeheartedly. "You won't ever see a half-dozen or so black plays and musicals at once," someone else said flatly. "We don't have a shortage of talent," this one dancer said. "or material," said another.

the stats certainly supported everything they said but frankly, i didn't want to believe it. I thought that if someone was genuinely talented and if they did a great audition for a role that was right for them, they'd get the part. That’s how naïve I was. *sigh*

My unwavering belief that talent was what you needed first and foremost extended to every genre except film, in part because I’d seen way too many people get way too much for having little more than relatively natural good looks and/or a great set of (handcrafted) tits. Theater, I reasoned, was where the rubber hit the road. Unless, of course, you are famous. (question: why do film stars do theater?)

The more work i got, the more theater i saw, the more real those words became. it was insidious, really: the invisible (white) powers-that-be, tentacles outstretched in every genre, forever deciding what gets produced, who gets the part, what gets the public attention, what won't see the light of day. The message was clear: If you can make yourself into what they think you should be (whatever that is), you’ll work all the time. Being at the mercy of such inner workings is one thing but having to subjugate oneself to a system that denigrates you at almost every turn – and carries an ugly historical precedent of vilifying you – is something else. Any step in the right direction seems almost radical – which is a part of the reason why it’s so politically incorrect to say that you don’t like the movie Dreamgirls.

Well. You know what? I didn’t like it.

Yes, the costumes were fabulous. Yes, Beyonce looked beautiful. (They all did, really.) Yes, Jennifer Hudson sang. Yes, it was genuinely entertaining. Yes, it was wonderful to get a glimpse of the system in the music business that makes or breaks stars. Yes, the whole cast was strong. But you know what? I thought it was one cliché after another after another. I thought the songs were good but they weren’t up to (Motown) scratch. I thought that Eddie Murphy’s dramatic turn was a serious version of Velvet Jones (with a little of his James Brown impersonation on the side), a character he brought to life in the 80’s on Saturday Night Live when he was 19 – and that his Oscar nomination is for his past work on that show (which was nothing short of astonishing for a teenager), his reputation in Hollywood (his movies have grossed something like 3 billion dollars) and the fact that he’s attempting to do something “different.” I thought that almost every time Beyonce sang, she was singing at me and not to me. it's all about melisma with her. Stop hollering and screaming and just sing, i thought. maybe she doesn't know how.

I thought that it was a shame that everyone thinks that this is a thinly-veiled retelling of the rise and fall of The Supremes and Diana Ross in particular. It’s history, this one exceedingly effeminate latino (with bad skin and a Marlo Thomas flip-up ‘do, of all things) told me as I stood in line with my “admit one only” SAG pass (because you know I was saving my pennies to see Pan’s Labyrinth). It’s poetic license, I thought. Florence Ballard died broke and alone in the ghetto at 32. Payola will probably always be alive and well.

Mostly though, I kept wondering what Dreamgirls would have been if it had been written by black women instead of gay white men.

At one point, i looked around the theater and realized that it was mostly black women. clearly, the one that was seated next to me was as excited to see something of ourselves on the big screen as i was. how often does it happen in a major release that a black woman has the lead role? how many major releases are black films?

The underlying message is that back in the day, you had to accommodate white people and make them feel comfortable with your muted down blackness before they would accept you and buy your music. Crossover appeal. The real point for me is that nothing has changed – but they don’t really get into that. Too bad.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Jennifer Hudson’s performance. It was very good overall but her version of “And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going” is something of a revelation. It’s so much more than a wonderful voice, singing. This is an iconic song that absolutely everyone – from the diva that’s doing yet another regional production of the musical to the tired drag queen lip-synching it up with campy spasmodic gusto for that weekend crowd at the cabaret – knows a little too well and loves a little too much. Except me. Call me nutty, but I was never completely comfortable with a black woman singing, “I don’t want to be free,” no matter what the context. Hm.

It takes a powerhouse to sing it, but a strong voice doesn’t ever guarantee a moving performance. Believe me, there are plenty of black women out there who have the vocal chops to nail it to the wall. (Try any sanctified black church on any given Sunday morning. i mean, really.) Too many people worldwide are personally invested in that song at this point because Jennifer Holiday gave such an emotionally blistering Tony award-winning performance. In theory, it seemed an insurmountable task: an American Idol reject with no film experience, no successful recordings under her belt and no real name recognition to speak of not only stars in a movie version of a beloved black musical alongside bona fide system-built box office black stars, she sings the song that everyone showed up to hear. And she nails it.

What’s bizarre is that the arc of her performance of that song is basically the five stages of grief. She moves through each moment with so much conviction that i was compelled to move through them with her and as i did, i completely forgot about the original version and got lost in what was unfolding before me. I don't know if she deserves an Oscar. She definitely earned a nomination.

It's hysterial that Beyonce believes that the only thing that stood in the way of her having Jennifer Hudson's part was weight gain. She's got 9 Grammies and she can sing and she's beautiful -- but she's not an artist. she's a product. she may not know it but her parents do. especially her father.

things aren't anywhere near as bad as they used to be for us in this business. i know that i'm a product when i present myself as an artist but real change happens when we -- as artists, not products -- write and produce our own work. in other words, don't think beyonce -- think dave chapelle.


AJ Muhammad said...

Hi Queen: This is a rambling response so you can tune out when you want to.
I'm glad that you finally got to see Dreamgirls, but its unfortunately you didn't like it. Since I have never seen the musical, I have only heard the original cast album which is as said was supposed to be a commercial album marketed to the public which is why they cut out a lot of the songs and kept the bare minimum. Recently I had the chance to hear the version done as a fundraiser for the Actor's Fund with Norm Lewis, Audra, Lilias, Darius, Billy Porter and Heather Headley which is a complete recording with the dialogue and all the shorter songs. And I loved it, except for Heather Headley jacking up Ain't No Party and because she couldn't handle it and she kept going off key not like the way Loretta held it down back in the day. I also have to disagree that you don't think that Dreamgirls is loosely based on the story of the Supremes & Berry Gordy because it's known that it was or at least that's how the media has written about it since the musical premired back in the day. I think that the movie ratched up the Berry Gordon parallels ala the Jackson Five-esque group in the film. It is clear that Deena based on Diana somewhat especially re: her cross over to movies/high fashion etc. I am also not sure if you think the film has cliches or if the original version does. Yes, we know that Curtis will be taken down but I think that the stories (as portrayed in the musical and to some extent in the film) of all of the women were well done and satisfying, especially since they all have their own arcs. I am also annoyed that they cut Aint No Party out of the film because I would've loved to see Anika take it on and it's not even on the soundtrack!

The fact that Dreamgirls was written for and performed by black actors is revolutionary to me, because it's one of the first times we see three dimensional roles for black theater actors. I can't think of anything else besides George Wolfe's Jelly's Last Jam (or the Jewish/white written The Life which although was about blacks pimps and prostitute had depth and it was what the actors did to them you know that Lilias, Chuck Cooper, Kevin Ramsey and Pam Isaacs brought it) that was written for black folks that's a serious musical theater piece that has come along since.

And yes, Jennifer Hudson nailed it and earned and deserved that nomination and the fact that critics have compared her screen debut to Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler is amazing because you know they don't do that for sistas that so Jennifer has to be good. And I think her acting was pretty good since this was her first film and it brough out the problems in Beyonce's acting in the fact that outside of being beautiful Beyonce doesn't have the same presence/magnetism that Jenn or Anika posess. One critic said that the only time Beyonce came alive was when she was singing and that was true. Another thing is that it is ironic that Beyonce played Deena as you said in your blog that she's a product. Just like Jamie Foxx described Deena in the movie and the fact that he told her that the reason why he picked her to sing lead was because her voice wasn't that strong hits home. Especially as you pointed out about her father and how he positioned her to be the lead and the object of affection at the expense of the other Destiny Child girls. And no matter how many times Beyonce said she that she and Deena are different they are more similar than she would admit.

And yes as you point out about Jenifer Holiday doing that show 8 times a week is nothing short of phenomenal for her that she had to do that arc/journey live in 2.5 hours.

My supervisor said something similar to what you said about the lyrics for And I'm Telling... that she couldn't imagine a (black) woman telling a man that. Well, Jenifer Hudson and Holiday could've been singing gibberish and they still would've nailed it.

A friend of mine, like you said that she wasn't blown away by Dreamgirls. I think that y'all are being too hard and not taking into account the scenes that I thought were really beautiful/cinematic especially the Dreamgirls song where it looked like there were really stars, the Move song, Stepping to The Bad Side, Fake Your Way to the Top (the way it blends them rehearsing to an actual performance), especially It's All Over/And I'm Telling you were really suspenseful and electric. But everybody is entitled to their opinion of course.

And as for Pan's Labyrinth, I have to tell you that it may be good and wonderful but I am so tired of seeing those stills with the character with eyes in his hands and the little girl looking up at the human faun... So enjoy it.

Also, re: something else you said about black people being leads in film, there was an article in Variety which made me so livid that I wrote back to them about how the fact that since "Something New" (which I thought was well done and well acted and nuanced) and "Phat Girlz" didn't do well, it means that Hollywood has a problem attracting black women to the movies. They also mentioned that outside of the Tyler Perry films (which have built in followings from his touring shows), black women don't seem to be too interested in what Hollywood has to offer. I said to them that I hardly call 4 of 5 movies a year a significant outreach to black audiences, especially since black people see mainstream movies that aren't necessarily targed to them.
I also said that this was reminiscant to the release of Waiting to Exhale and Stella in that this was supposed to change things for blacks in films as well as the series of black romantic comedies or dramas (Love Jones, Best Man, Booty Call, Set it Off, etc) which did relatively well considered they were made on a shoestring and marketed as such. I also wrote that if Hollywood was so interested in making movies for black women maybe they can do more book to movie adaptations with the books that are popular with black women (a la Valerie Wilson Wesley, Bebe Campbell Moore, E. Lynn Harris, more Terry, more Alice Walker, more Gloria Naylor, more Walter Mosely, Zane etc.) or really try to do more than 5 movies a year out of the hundreds/thousands that are released. I also said I hoped that Variety article wasn't an excuse to stop doing things for black audiences instead of trying to really cultivate them. Oh well.

Well, since they're gearing up a musical theater version of Women of Brewster place which has been recently workshopped with Harriet Foy, Adriane lenox and others and you went in for Sister Act which was a hit recently in California and is breaking records at the Alliance (both were written by whites of course) we'll see how things shape up. It's also annoying that more black authors/pop music composers don't try to develop musical theater pieces themselves as opposed to wait until they are asked by general managers/producers and I'm also annoyed at how only tries to line up projects based on the success of their current projects for white audiences a la Sweeney Todd and Company directed by the same director. More later.

c a d e said...

you hit the nail right on the head. like always.

sick of beyonce. love jennifer hudson.

dreams do come true *