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Backstage

 

Training for a Lifetime for the Role of Pearl Bailey

 

By Jane Horwitz

Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 15, 2008; Page C05

 

Ever since singer-actress Roz White found out she shared a birthday (March 29) with Pearl Bailey, she's felt a kinship with the legendary performer. "I thought, wow, we look alike . . . so I started reading her books and learning her quotes," White says. Bailey, who died in 1990, also spent part of her childhood in Washington, where White grew up.

 

"She could work a ballad like the best of 'em. She just was the completely well-rounded entertainer. . . . She had it all," observes White, who is starring in a cabaret-style salute, "Pearl Bailey . . . by Request," at MetroStage in Alexandria tomorrow through Nov. 9. The show is an expanded version of a piece White performed at THEARC in Anacostia, now co-written with the show's director, Thomas W. Jones II.

 

White says she aims to become Bailey "top to bottom" at MetroStage. "I don't want you to think for one moment that you're watching Roz," she says. "I chose not to portray her in her latter years. I chose to portray her in her prime, with a fabulous gown, fabulous hair . . . to show you exactly what it looked like then."

 

White lived and performed in New Orleans for several years, returning to Washington after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, MetroStage has been a frequent artistic home. She played Alberta Hunter in "Bricktop" and appeared in "Two Queens One Castle" and "Three Sistahs." She won a 1996 Helen Hayes Award for her work in Jones's "Bessie's Blues" at Studio Theatre.

 

"Pearl Bailey . . . by Request" is based in part on an album Bailey recorded for Columbia Records in the 1950s. Songs such as "St. Louis Blues," "Legalize My Name" and "Takes Two to Tango" are interwoven with Bailey's trademark patter. "Pearl has so many built-in monologues to her songs that hardly any writing needed to be done" for the show, White notes.

 

As a teen, White says, she preferred listening to her grandmother's LPs of Bailey, Sarah Vaughn and Bessie Smith rather than to contemporary singers of her youth, such as Michael Jackson. She was drawn to the spotlight even as a tot. When she was 3 and 4 years old, she would push aside kids with stage fright and step in for them at little school shows, White's mother reminds her. She attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, then earned a degree from Howard University's musical theater program, studying with the fabled Mike Malone at both schools. At Howard, she created a solo piece about Bailey, Vaughn, Smith, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Nancy Wilson. "As the years went on," White says, "I started to chip away at the piece and focus on one woman" -- Bailey.

 

The show touches on some of the controversies in Bailey's life. Her long marriage to jazz drummer Louis Bellson, who is white, drew criticism from both sides of the racial divide. A 1946 Broadway show, "St. Louis Woman," in which she starred, offended the NAACP. White says Bailey, who was a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and in 1988 was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, took a broader view.

 

"She believed in human beings first, and love was our bond," White says. "It sounds like a cliche now, but she really believed it."