'Cookin' Serves a Helping of Warmth and Comfort

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Early in Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter at MetroStage, the Memphis-born singer and songwriter appears in a bathrobe and fluffy slippers, ready to settle into an armchair.

The cozy image epitomizes the bio-musical's unthreatening aesthetic: With a methodical A-to-Z narrative, a gently wisecracking script, and catchy blues and jazz numbers delivered by charismatic performers, Cookin' is designed for audience comfort. It isn't edgy, complex or unduly thought-provoking, and the worthiness of its subject matter is likely to light a warm glow in many theatergoers' hearts.

Written and directed by Marion J. Caffey (3 Mo' Divas, Three Mo' Tenors), Cookin' pays decorous tribute to Hunter, whose career flourished -- in nightclubs, vaudeville, musical theater and the recording studio -- from the '20s through World War II. Among her other accomplishments, Hunter shared a stage with Paul Robeson in a London production of Show Boat and co-wrote "Downhearted Blues," which became a hit for Bessie Smith. When her popularity waned, Hunter reinvented herself as a nurse, working until she was 82 -- at which point she made a sensational return to showbiz, performing at a Greenwich Village club named the Cookery.

Janice Lorraine, left, and Ernestine Jackson as Alberta Hunter 
in Cookin’ at the Cookery (By Colin Hovde – MetroStage)
After encountering the tale in 1996, Caffey resolved to rescue the late singer's achievements from what seemed undeserved obscurity. Thriftily written for two actors, this show premiered in Florida in 1997 and has played across the United States and Canada. Ernestine Jackson and Janice Lorraine, the two actresses treading the boards at MetroStage, appeared in a number of those productions -- so it's no surprise that they cinch their roles here.

Jackson primarily depicts Hunter at the time of the Cookery engagement, which began in the late 1970s. Once she doffs that homey bathrobe to reveal a fire-engine-red dress, she brims with calm, confident pizazz, her hands and hips shimmying subtly as she croons near a shawl-draped piano. (Music director William Knowles mans the keys; three other instrumentalists are at the rear of the set.) Delivering risque numbers such as "Rough and Ready Man," Jackson emphasizes double-entendres with knowing eye movements and the trace of a smile. She also has an enjoyably dry way with a quip. (Jackson, who originated the role in Florida, is at MetroStage for two weeks; starting February 7, Jackie Richardson, who won honors for the part in Toronto, steps in.)

It's Lorraine, however, who steals the limelight with her impish characterizations of Hunter's eccentric acquaintances. Her growling Louis Armstrong impression is dead-on, and she's even better as the doddering, pucker-faced Cookery owner, Barney Josephson. Her portrait of Hunter as a bubbly, pigtailed, hopscotching girl, on the other hand, can't keep those early scenes from feeling tedious.

Lighting and set designer Dale F. Jordan evokes the milieus of Chicago and New York with shining, skyscraper-like patterns projected on the walls, and Marilyn A. Wall supplies a few costumes that flesh out the epoch -- the khaki uniform that Hunter sports to entertain U.S. troops, for instance. But partly because of its two-actor structure, Cookin' provides only tantalizing hints of social and historical context. (By comparison, another MetroStage bio-musical, last year's Bricktop, conveyed a richer picture of an era while relating the tale of entertainer Ada Smith.)

A certain sketchiness is inevitable, given that Cookin' attempts to cover Hunter's 89 years in a mere two hours. And though finicky audiences might long for fare that's more probing, challenging and unpredictable, many more will doubtless happily settle for the show Caffey has provided: an allotment of music, a smattering of information and a format as indulgent as a down comforter.

Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter, written and directed by Marion J. Caffey. Musical arrangements and supervision, Danny Holgate. About two hours. Through March 9 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 800-494-8497 or visit http://www.metrostage.org.