From the Alexandria Gazette Packet

 

THE OTHER DREAMGIRLS
The women of ‘Bricktop’ bring 1920s Paris to life at the MetroStage.

By Michael Lee Pope
January 17, 2007

 

The allure of 1920s Paris is an attraction that transcends time, with its ebullient jazz riffs and its smoke-filled, backroom ambience. The City of Lights has always had a special appeal, but the confusing years that followed World War I formed a magical time when the stars seemed to align. Members of a rising generation forged bold new contours in art, music and literature. Known as the Lost Generation, many of these artists made their way to Paris — center of an evolving avant-garde lifestyle that attracted the war-weary youth.
Several of these voyagers made their way into Chez Bricktop, an establishment founded by American singer AdaBricktop” Smith.

“I think Chez Bricktop was sort of like the precursor to ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,’” said Peggy Blow, who plays the legendary vaudevillian in a new production at MetroStage. “What happened at the club stayed at the club, and this is a play that speaks to the joy of that time.”

The glamour of Smith’s Paris joint is the setting for “Bricktop,” a cabaret-style show that will run through Feb. 25 at MetroStage. The interactive performance features actors strolling through the audience and standing on tables — putting the crowd in the action of the play much as it had been in 1920s Paris. Some of the audience members will actually be seated onstage. The plot follows Smith’s 60-year friendship with Alberta Hunter and Mabel Mercer.

“These three women came together in this small world of ours and formed a special bond,” said Blow. “They had a chemistry together, and Paris offered the kind of freedom that let that relationship develop.”

Blow has performed in “Dance on Widow’s Row” at Mixed Blood Theatre, toured in “Crowns” in San Diego and San Francisco for 180 performances and received the 2005 NAACP Image Award for her portrayal of Billy Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” But she said that she has a special attraction to playing Bricktop — one that she felt she was born to play.

“All I have to do is open up and let this woman do her show through me,” said Blow. “I don’t want to cheapen it by calling it channeling, but here’s a connection there.”

THE THREE WOMEN performers each filled a special niche at Chez Bricktop. Smith was the outspoken vaudevillian, someone who could alternate between jazz, blues and swing. Hunter was a blues master, and arguably the most famous of the three characters. And Mercer was a classically trained singer specializing in the jazz standards of the era. Her tranquil personality formed a counterpoint between Smith and Hunter.

“Mabel Mercer was a song interpreter as much as a vocalist,” said C. Kelly Wright, who plays Mercer in the play. “Her styling was very influential, and her technique was adapted by people like Josephine Baker and Bobby Short.”

Wright said that special relationship between the three women forms the backbone of “Bricktop,” with the interpersonal dynamics creating the backdrop as their relationship evolves from the heady 1920s to their golden years in the 1980s. The three women died within months of each other, friends until the end.

“The bond they had was integral to their art,” said Wright. “They would always come back to the trio. It was sort of like a home for them.”

Wright has appeared in “Crowns” on the West Coast and at the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, Fla. Her other appearances include “Into The Woods,” “Bat Boy: The Musical,” “Smokey Joe's Café,” “Oo Bla Dee,” “Triumph of Love” and “Gypsy.” But as someone who grew up in the Washington area, she said she is excited to be a part of “Bricktop,” which she describes as an “explosive” mix of music, dancing and drama that is certain to make a splash on the theater scene in Alexandria.

“It’s not so much a play as a party,” she said. “They may be part of a Lost Generation, but they deserve to be discovered again.”

ALBERTA HUNTER is probably the most well known of the three because of the comeback she made later in life. According to Roz White Gonsalves, who portrays Hunter in the play, her ability to sing the blues was the product of a troubled personal life that was stifled by American racial segregation.

“You can hear the suffering in her voice,” said Gonsalves. “She sort of thought of herself as the woman who brought the blues to Paris.”

Gonsalves said that Paris in the 1920s was a seminal moment for blacks, whose artistry was appreciated in Europe in ways that were inconceivable in America. While minstrel shows degraded blacks, Paris audiences embraced the women in a way that freed them to infuse their art with their own distinctive individuality.

“It still happens today. I have friends that go to Paris and never come back,” said Gonsalves. “In America, there’s one look and one style. But in Europe, if you’ve got a great song and you can really sing it you’ll get a reaction.”

Gonsalves was last seen at MetroStage in “Two Queens One Castle” and as Mahalia in “Mahalia-a Gospel Musical” at St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre. She was also seen at MetroStage in “Three Sistahs” and played Effie in the National Tour Revival of “Dreamgirls.” She said that what makes “Bricktop” different than any other production she has ever been in is the unique staging, with members of the audience sitting at bistro tables on the stage.

“The audience has to be prepared to be on the stage,” she said. “It’s a great play, and I think it’s going to take this city by storm.”