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Ella the Ungovernable

Speculative fiction about 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald’s little-known time incarcerated in the NY Training School for Girls.

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Christian Neal as Ella and Tyra Hughes as Alice in a scene from David McDonald’s “Ella the Ungovernable” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

David McDonald has uncovered an obscure and interesting story: 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald’s incarceration in the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson, New York, after her mother was killed crossing the street, and her miraculous escape from it.  While little is known of her life during this period, McDonald calls his play Ella the Ungovernable “speculative fiction.” As co-directed by actress Michele Baldwin (who plays Ella’s mother Tempie, short for Temperance) and the playwright, the play feels a bit long without an intermission.

Young Ella Fitzgerald arrives at the Training School in Hudson under the impression that it will teach her a skill. However, it quickly transpires that it is nothing of the sort, more like a prison where the inmates are abused and their unpaid labor goes to work needed in the facility. Reticent and reserved Ella is shown the ropes about how to survive by her roommate Alice, like avoiding fights with violent and unruly inmates and abusive guards.

Geneva Turner as the Social Worker and Simone Black as Aunt Edna in a scene from David McDonald’s “Ella the Ungovernable” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

In flashbacks we see Ella and her mother Tempie move to Yonkers from Virginia, Tempie taking up with chauffeur Joseph, her early death and Ella’s abuse by her slacker stepfather. She is then moved to Harlem by Social Services to live with distant Aunt Edna, an alcoholic, who does not feed her, and then when she becomes a lookout for a bordello to earn her keep, she is arrested and sent to Hudson.

How Ella survives the training school is the story of the play. She is helped not only by Alice, but by the psychologist Dr. Moreno, the choirmaster Mr. Ellison, the medical officer Dr. Grant, and the NAACP activist Dr. Ross. Ultimately, she makes her escape from Hudson and appears at the first-ever Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater which led to her legendary career in music.

Christian Neal as 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald in a scene from David McDonald’s “Ella the Ungovernable” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

While this play with music is interesting, the flashbacks are not very well tied to the story and the most dramatic events all happen offstage. The flashbacks do not reveal much we do not already know or suspect nor are they very eloquent or vivid. There is almost no editorializing so that we often do not get the import of the scene.

Another problem with the production is the long blackouts between scenes when the uncredited unit set is changed for the next locale. It would have been more efficient to have several set-ups side by side so that the transitions could be made more swiftly. The barebones production means that many of the scenic effects described in the script are skipped altogether. The large cast of 22 requires that the audience has to keep track of a great many characters, some of whom play more than one role.

Huston Pigford as Choirmaster Ellison with Ebony Nixon, Tezha Davis, Gabrielle Farley, Christian Neal, Autumn McCree and Kaira Joseph in a scene from David McDonald’s “Ella the Ungovernable” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

As young Ella, Christian Neal has an excellent singing voice in her three songs, but her internalized, low-key performance undercuts the drama in the story. While she may be attempting to show that she is traumatized, she does appear practical and shrewd for a girl still in her teens. On the other hand, Tyra Hughes as her roommate Alice is vivacious and animated.

As the women in Ella’s life, Baldwin suggests the world weariness of a single mother in a new city. Simone Black as Aunt Edna establishes her indifference but fails to make clear that she is a confirmed alcoholic and incapable of taking care of Ella. Shadenia Sivad as the prostitute who comes to look after Ella makes a strong impression as a woman who has seen it all and can take care of herself. In the small role of the social worker who places Ella with her aunt, Geneva Turner is ironic and wry. Joe Grosso as the self-serving stepfather is underwritten and suggests less than is implied.

Ann Gussendanner and Lee Waldrop as Dr. and Mrs. Ross, Martin Challinor as Dr. Grant and Christian Neal as Ella in a scene from David McDonald’s “Ella the Ungovernable” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

At the Training Center, Michael McGrath is frightening as an abusive guard O’Boyle. Ebony Nixon and Gabrielle Farley give forceful performances as tablemates that Ella meets through Alice. Sheldon Young is almost too good to be true as the psychologist who offers to look after Ella. Colleen Hayden is ambiguous as the white superintendent of the Training Center: is she well-meaning or sly, does she know what is going on or is she closing her eyes to the abuses? The author is mum on his take on this situation. Other underwritten roles are taken by Martin Challinor as the medical doctor in charge, Huston Pigford as the choirmaster who sees talent in Ella, and Lee Waldrop as the NAACP activist who eventually gets to help her escape.

David McDonald’s Ella the Ungovernable is certainly an interesting speculative fiction. However, one would imagine that this is not its final form. It could use some restructuring to make the flashbacks more persuasive and give the minor characters more to do. It might be more complelling to invent events to fill in the gaps for things that have not come to light.

Ella the Ungovernable (through July 7, 2024)

Theater for the New City

Johnson Theater, 155 First Avenue, at East 10th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (995 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

1 Comment on Ella the Ungovernable

  1. It’s too bad there are so many flaws in this play.

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