Multi-talented Ann Duquesnay (DU-k-nay), best known for her Tony Award-winning performance in the hit Broadway musical “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk,”(1996) may be getting off easy these days at the George Street Playhouse. She has not been asked to either compose any new music or augment any of the late and great composer Julie Styne’s score for “Hallelujah, Baby!,” the 1967 Tony Award-winning musical currently revised and updated by the show’s original author Arthur Laurents. After talking with the musical theater star in the green room before rehearsal, I came to the conclusion that she would, if asked, come through with a few extra notes. “Yes, I compose. It’s a gift,” she acknowledges. The other gift she says is Laurents. “He’s an incredible man at 87. What a joy he is to work with.” I detect a sense of relief in her voice that at this time in her career she only has contribute her phenomenal voice to play the role of “Momma” and sing the music of one of Styne’s best, but also least known, scores that features the lyrics of Comden and Green.
Duquesnay says that her talent for composing was nurtured in “Spunk,” (1990) based on three tales by Zora Neale Hurston, the first show that Duquesnay performed in for director George C. Wolfe at the Public Theater and featured music by Chic Street Man, who also performed. “After ‘ Spunk,’ I was encouraged by Wolfe to write more music and vocal arrangements for ‘Noise-Funk.’” This immensely popular Wolfe-Savion Glover song and tap dance collaboration traces the history of the African-American from their journey on slave ships to not being able to get a taxi. Music for the show was also contributed by Daryl Waters and Zane Mark. “We started work with no script, no title, no nothing,” she says, sounding almost astonished by this admission.
“I’ll be forever grateful to Wolfe for giving me the chance to show what I can do,” she says, explaining how Wolfe was impressed with her ability to put music to the dialogue as it was being written and to the prose of vintage newspaper articles about the Black migration. “I even put my own nickname into a song, as well as a memory of my mother shouting down at me to come in from a window in our five story walkup in Harlem when I was a little girl, ‘Mootsie, come on up her here girl.’”
Almost spontaneously, Duquesnay starts singing the lyrics of another song from “Noise-Funk” that she says was inspired by her parents, who were sharecroppers in the South and migrated to Harlem when she was five years old.
“Uh huh, Uh huh,
Somethin’ from Nothin', Somethin’ from Nothin',
Workin’ So Hard.”
What is immediately evident is the passion that she expresses in her singing and that she shares so willingly. Some of this largesse undoubtedly comes from the determination of her parents to provide a better life and education for their children. “They stayed together. I didn’t come from a broken home. They worked hard, had property and sent me to a private school, Saint Jean Baptiste on 75th and Lexington. I was the only black girl in the school. I had a brother, but they are all gone now. It’s just me.”
In “Hallelujah, Baby!” Duquesnay finds herself traveling through time and once again in a story that presents a view of Black America’s struggle for equality. The musical unfolds in a series of decade-spanning episodes in which the characters are always the same age. It follows Georgina and her “Momma” through the challenges of a society struggling with segregation, economic hardships, two world wars and the momentous fight for civil rights.
Duquesnay says that although her mother remains her role model for her strength, she has patterned “Momma” after her aunt, her father’s sister by using her physical characteristics. She says, “Like ‘ Momma’ in the show, who doesn’t approve of Georgina’s beau, my aunt never liked the man I wanted to marry. Racism also exists among black people. In my case it was because he was very dark.”
“I’m enjoying doing the role of ‘Momma’ (originated on Broadway by Lillian Hayman) especially because I was not familiar with the show and have no comparisons to make. Momma is a maid, quite a character and very set in her way. She wants her daughter Georgina (played by Suzzanne Douglas in the role that garnered a Tony for Leslie Uggams) to remain a maid. But the daughter wants to go into show business and be a singing star. Although Momma wants her to be safe, she is no fool. Momma knows the game of life and how to play it.”
Duquesnay is comparatively unique among singers in that she has never had any formal training in either composition or voice. Sharing memories with me, she says, “I was only sixteen in the late 1950s and still in school when I won the Amateur Night contest at the Apollo. The Prize was that I got a week booking on stage with Bo Diddly and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.”
Despite a voice that has been described as fiercely strong and deeply soulful, Duquesnay says she had always shied away from cabaret and nightclub gigs because you had to face people head on, whereas in theater you have a character to hide behind. Despite this, she chose to make her cabaret debut in a tribute to Billie Holiday at the intimate Rainbow & Stars, on the 65th floor at Rockefeller Center, and conquered another hurdle.
But “theater is my passion,” says Duquesnay whose extraordinary and versatile voice has allow her the opportunity to portray such legendary divas as Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday and most recently Alberta Hunter in “ Cookin’ at the Cookery,” for which she received a Drama Desk nomination and Drama League Distinguished Recognition for the Melting Pot Theatre, N.Y. production. “I won’t give you my age,” she says emphatically, “but unlike many younger singers, I have a sense of who they were. I have been told that I bring the grit and the pathos to those great ladies of blues and jazz.” Duquesnay is forthright about her resistance to just being herself on the stage. This, despite the encouragement she receives from friends to produce a CD of her own, something she says she is contemplating. “When I do Alberta Hunter, people always come up to me and ask, ‘Where to get a CD? When I tell them in the lobby, they say, I’ ve already got Hunter, I want your CD.” She tells me, “I’m working on it.”
Perhaps it was singing the Blues in her first Broadway show “Blues in the Night” (1982) that inspired her to write a song that came from who she is and not from a character. During the filming of “Marci X,” in which she had a featured part, she realized how quickly a song is born. “I was having my makeup applied and a tear fell from my eye. The makeup artist said, ‘Oh, don’t cry Miss Ann.’ And I said, ‘That’s a great title for a song. The next morning I came back with the song and sang it to her,” she says, offering me a sampling that came close to putting a tear in my eye:
You know the world has gotten crazy,
It’s not like before,
Don’t give up, Keep holdin’ on,
Help is on the way, It’s over at the door
Don’t cry Miss Ann.
Duquesnay had her first taste of stardom in the legendary way. It was during the run of “Bubbling Brown Sugar” starring Cab Callaway at the Westbury Music Fair. “I was playing ‘The Blues Lady’ and ‘ The Gospel Lady’ and was also the understudy for the lead. During the fourth week of a six-week run, the leading lady Marilyn Johnson was struck by a falling light fixture during curtain calls at the matinee and taken away in an ambulance. I had never rehearsed the part, but had done my homework. I went on that evening. On my way home I looked up at the stars and said to my father, who was deceased but always a big Callaway fan, ‘Did you see me? I’m on stage with Cab Calloway.” Cab was so pleased with my performance that I played the lead for the rest of the run and for the remainder of the national tour. And yes, Marilyn and I are friends to this day.”
Duquesnay made her Broadway debut in “Blues in the Night.” (1982) fortifying her love for the blues genre. Further Broadway appearances as Glinda, the good witch in the 1984 revival of “The Wiz,” and as Gran Mimi in the Jelly Roll Morton musical “Jelly’s Last Jam” (1992) and “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” (1999) confirmed Duquesnay as a performer who had, as one critic described, “a voice that can bring down the roof.” About her voice, she tells me, “I never had a voice lesson until last year when I had a slight vocal issue. I went for help to vocal coach Joan Lader. Now I do the warm up exercises. Education and training is a good thing, but if you can’t get it, don’t let go of your dream.” You can be sure that Duquesnay has not. One day she may hear a familiar voice calling, “Come on up Mootsie.” She will undoubtedly answer, “Not now Momma, I’m still playing.”
“Hallelujah, Baby” is a co-production between The George Street Playhouse (October 5 – November 7), 9 Livingston Ave, New Brunswick, N.J. (732 – 246 - 7717 www.GSPonline.org and Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, where it will move following this engagement.