On the last Monday in August, the joint was jumpin’ at 54 BELOW for Tonya Pinkins who performed excerpts from Hurricane Ethel, her upcoming one woman show written in collaboration with director Dennis Courtney.
The actress, who won a Tony Award for Jelly’s Last Jam, was transcendent as she channelled Ethel Waters, the legendary African-American actress and jazz-era singer who was America’s first International superstar of any race, weaving a vibrant tapestry of characters instrumental in Waters’ life, and highlighting the canon of songs in the Great American Songbook written especially for her golden pipes.
Many in the theater community turned out on this sultry summer night to join her in celebrating the iconic entertainer, including André De Shields, George Faison, David Ives, S. Epatha Merkerson, Billy Porter, Elaine Stritch, Jeanine Tesori, Charles Turner, George C. Wolfe, Colleen Zenk, and Pinkins’ son Maxx Brawer.
Born on October 31, 1896 in Chesterfield, PA., Ethel Waters was a pioneer as an African American artist in the entertainment field whose talents and accomplishments were peerless. She was the first black woman heard on the radio, the first black singer to perform on television, the first African American to perform in an integrated cast on Broadway, the first black woman to perform in a lead dramatic role on Broadway, and the first African American to receive equal billing on Broadway. source: http://musicians.allaboutjazz.com/musician.php?id=11192
Ms. Pinkins, accompanied by her musical director Barry Levitt on piano, Dick Sarpola on bass, and Waldren Ricks on trumpet, sang arrangements of songs that Waters made famous and utilized signature tunes as signposts to tell the story of the famed singer’s life. Her set list included “I Got Rhythm,” “You Can’t Do What My Last Man Did,” “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” “Come Up and See Me Sometime,” “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Lil Black Boy,” “Eli Eli,” “Heatwave,” “Dinah,” “Old Man Harlem/ Harlem on My Mind,” “Moon Glow/Taking a Chance on Love,” “Honey in the Honeycomb/Happiness is a Thing Called Joe/Cabin in the Sky Medley,” “Suppertime,” “Stormy Weather,” “Handyman,” “Black and Blue,” and “A Hundred Years from Today.”
On Broadway, Ms. Waters starred in As Thousands Cheer, At Home Abroad, Mamba’s Daughters, Cabin in the Sky, and Member of the Wedding. She was an indelible presence in the films Cabin in the Sky, The Member of the Wedding,The Sound and the Fury, and Pinky, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1949, following Hattie McDaniel as the second Black woman to be nominated for an Oscar. The following year, she won the New York Drama Critics Award for best actress. Ms. Waters starred in the television show “Beaulah,” wrote her autobiography “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” with Charles Samuel, and in the late Fifties, performed and toured with evangelist Billy Graham until her death in 1977.
In the past twelve months alone, Tonya Pinkins has given five critically acclaimed performances in roles as diverse as an aging Countess, a syphilitic Bawd, a bitter ghetto mom, a diabetic great grandmother and a faithful Latina from the Bronx. Her performance in Milk Like Sugar won the 2012 Lucille Lortel Award. On Broadway, Ms. Pinkins made her debut in the original cast of Merrily We Roll Along, appeared in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Play On!, The Wild Party, Caroline, or Change, and Radio Golf. Television audiences are most familiar with her from “As The World Turns,” “All My Children” and “Army Wives”.
Her performances have been nominated for the Olivier, Jefferson, Helen Hayes, NAACP, Dramaleague, What’s On Stage, Audience Choice, Soap Opera Digest, Noel and Ovation awards. She is the winner of the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critic’s Circle, Clarence Derwent, Monarch, Black theater Alliance, Garland, L.A. Drama Critics, Audelco and Obie Awards.
OPRAH named her “One of the ten women in America who will take your breath away” and TIME OUT New York included Ms. Pinkins as One of Broadways 25 all Time Greatest Divas. www.tonyapinkins.com
Director Dennis Courtney staged a re-envisioned production of Fiddler on the Roof (currently in its 5th year running in Tel Aviv) as the official production for the 60th Anniversary of Israel, for which he won the Israeli National Theatre Award. He recently directed the off-Broadway premiere of Civil War Voices (6 MITF Awards). He has been the director/choreographer of over 150 stage productions including Peter Pan with Cathy Rigby (Los Angeles Drama Critics and DramaLogue Awards for Direction & Choreography) and Can-Can with Leslie Uggams. Mr. Courtney has conceived and staged special events and award shows, working with such performers as Bette Midler, Celine Dion, Quincy Jones, Warren Beatty, The Bacon Brothers & David Letterman. On television, Mr. Courtney directed the 5th season opener of TV’s “Perfect Strangers.”
54 BELOW is owned and operated by Tony Award winning producers Tom Viertel, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, and Steven Baruch. 54 BELOW features up to three shows nightly and has audio and video recording capabilities. The cover charge ranges from $5-$85.
54 BELOW is located at 254 West 54th Street. Tickets and information are available at www.54Below.com.
Other Articles by Lia Chang:
Jennifer Lim, Julyana Soelistyo, Greg Watanabe Set for Signature Theatre’s Production of David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child, October 23-December 2, 2012
Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins Celebrates Ethel Waters at 54 Below in New York on August 27, 2012
Faith Prince and Jason Graae: The Prince & the Showboy in Concert at 54 Below, August 21-25, 2012
André De Shields Returns to The Laurie Beechman Theatre with I Put A Spell on You, October 5 and 12
Photos: All-Access Pass to Disney’s Aladdin at The Muny with Thom Sesma, Francis Jue, Robin De Jesus, John Tartaglia, Jason Graae, Curtis Holbrook, Eddie Korbich, Samantha Massell and Ken Page
Photos: Tonya Pinkins, Billy Eugene Jones, Matthew Murumba and Toccarra Cash in Reading of Camille Darby’s Lords Resistance
Reading of Camille Darby’s Lords Resistance Stars Tonya Pinkins, Billy Eugene Jones, Tocarra Cash and Matthew Murumba at The Red Room on January 18
MTC’s An Enemy of The People Starring Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas Begin Previews at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
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Sean Dugan Set for West Coast Premiere of George C. Wolfe’s Tony Award-Winning Production of The Normal Heart at A.C.T., September 13 – October 7, 2012
David Henry Hwang to Receive the 2012 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award at the 5th Annual Steinberg Playwright “Mimi” Awards on October 29, 2012
Performing Arts Images from the Asian American Pacific Islander Collection on Display at the Library of Congress to Celebrate APA Heritage Month
Photos: Yellow Fever Playwright Rick Shiomi Explores New Territory with An All-Female Cast
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