Divas, Not Bitches

Dark Divas is dead-set on reclaiming the maligned tag.

Demene Hall has a few grievances with pop culture: the tired sounds of sampled music, a dearth of good variety shows, the lack of a black American female presence (Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Beyoncé just aren't enough for her), and most certainly the contortion of the word "diva."

"The way we define diva...it's not the way you children are defining diva. It has nothing to do with loud or attitude," says Hall, co-writer and co-director, with Kibibi Monié, of the musical production Dark Divas. "A diva is a woman who can enter a room, gain everyone's attention, and doesn't have to say a word. It's done with class. It's done with style. It's done with conscious pedigree."

That's just what Hall and Monié hope to bring to life with Dark Divas, a tribute to black American women singers in the heyday of Harlem's Apollo Theater and Cotton Club. Nu Black Arts West Theatre, a local theater group that focuses on productions and programs about African American community and cultural heritage, revives the lives of Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Billie Holiday, and Pearl Bailey through recreations of their performances and acted scenes from their personal lives. If you're under 40 or so, odds are good you've only heard of one or two of these women. And that, Hall says, is exactly the problem.

An actress by trade, Hall took on writing Dark Divas out of shock that these women's stories were relatively unheard. Monié, an actress and executive director of Nu Black, stepped in to help Hall refine and bring out the story.

The full cast includes dancers and a live orchestra, just as the ladies would have had at the Apollo. Players range from a 15-year-old dancer to 80-year-old Grace Holden, daughter of Seattle jazz pioneer Oscar Holden, playing legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. The company's been performing Dark Divas roughly once a year since 1998, from the Triple Door all the way to Ghana. Monié even recalls a conversation with actress/singer Kitt, who expressed interest in watching a rehearsal before she became a character in the show.

"I was telling her about Dark Divas," Monié says, "and she said, 'Well, how come I'm not in it?' I said, 'Well, because you're not dead.' And now she unfortunately is in the play."

After Kitt's 2008 passing, this Bumbershoot performance will be the first to include her, played by Nyema Clark. Her dramatic biography swells from her birth on a plantation to being given away by her mother at age 8 and sleeping on subways in adolescence.

"You would never, ever believe that of such an elegant, elegant woman," Monié says. "We want [people] to know the humanness of these women as well as their grandness. We want them to know that they went through a lot and still rose above it."

music@seattleweekly.com

 
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