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.