Swaddled in white mink, swigging from a silver flask, Dinah Washington concocted a blues-soaked singing style that was equal parts Baptist fervor, brandy and sex. Her sweet, earthy voice carried her from humble beginnings as a Chicago church soloist to prominence as the self-described "Queen of the Blues." Yvette Freeman captures Washington's singular style, delivering songs she rendered unforgettable including "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes," "I Wanna Be Loved," and "Come Rain or Come Shine." Dinah Was explodes with the rhythms, tough breaks, and tender notes that fired the life and music of this passionate performer.
"As far as role models go," she explained, "Dinah was fabulous. She had her dreams and she tried to fulfill them. She didn't get 'em all, but she prospered as a singer and as a businesswoman , and back in the fifties, black women weren't supposed to be acting like that! She had seven husbands, two kids, and I don't know how many hundreds of songs she recorded, so I think she lived a pretty full life in those few years."
Dinah Was premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1995, followed by an 11-week, sold-out run in 1996 at the Coast Playhouse in Los Angeles. The Off Broadway run, initially at the WPA Theatre, then at the new Gramercy Theatre, garnered an Obie Award for Freeman.
Dinah Washington, born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, began singing in church as a child. In 1942, Lionel Hampton hired her to sing with his band. Washington had a brassy voice that was often compared with a horn, or a trumpet. Wielding it with control and finesse, she could cut through the smoke and noise in a crowded club and bring an immediate hush to her spellbound audience. She left Hampton's band in 1946 to embark on a solo career and quickly began producing a string of Top Ten hits on the R&B charts. She sang blues, standards, novelties, and pop covers; in the early and mid-Fifties she also recorded straight jazz sessions with both big bands and more intimate small combos. Her breakthrough into the mainstream pop market came in 1959 with "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes." For the rest of her career she sang ballads backed by lush orchestrations, a move that drew fire from critics disappointed with her changeover to pop. She married seven times and struggled with weight problems; the singer's emotional life was always turbulent. Washington died at age 39 of an accidental overdose of diet pills and alcohol.
Peter Van Norden (Spinelli/Greenblatt) appeared in the first L.A. production of Dinah Was at the Coast Playhouse. Broadway: Little Johnny Jones (opposite Donny Osmond); Saint Joan (with Lynn Redgrave). Off-Broadway: Hamlet with Kevin Kline; Jungle of the Cities with Al Pacino; Henry V with Meryl Streepl. Other theater: A Christmas Carol (San Diego Rep); The Odd Couple (San Jose Rep); Misalliance (Center Stage, Baltimore); Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood (Laguna Playhouse); title role in Cymbeline (Old Globe, San Diego); Roger Rees's production of Love's Labour Lost; The Magic Fire (Old Globe, The Guthrie and Berkeley Rep); Camping with Henry and Tom (La Mirada). He received Drama-Logue Awards: for his one-man-show, Wilde and Wonderful; William Inge's The Last Pad, and the L.A. premiere of Cuba and His Teddy Bear.
Darryl Alan Reed (Boss/Chase) reprise his role from the Off-Broadway and touring productions of Dinah Was. Other recent and local theatrical credits include Dark Legends in Blood (L.A.T.C., the Wiltern, and Queen Mary); Oo-Bla-Dee (TheatreWorks, Palo Alto); Central Avenue (Fountain Theatre); and Flyin' West (Pasadena Playhouse). Film: Sweet and Lowdown (written and directed by Woody Allen); The American President (written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Rob Reiner); and The Blessing Way (written and directed by Yvette Freeman).
Sybyl Walker (Maye/Mama/Violet) performed in the Off Broadway production of Dinah Was. Other Off Broadway credits: Henry Vlll (N.Y. Shakespeare Festival); Insurrection: Holding History (Public Theatre); From The Mississippi Delta (Circle in the Square). Broadway: The Tempest with Patrick Stewart. L.A.: Is it Hot in Here Or Is It Me? with Dee Wallace Stone (Egyptian Arena); War Letters with Treat Williams (Canon Theatre); The Shoreham, a two person play with Eric Stoltz (Black Dahlia Theatre); The Kiss at City Hall (Pasadena Playhouse). She is the recipient of a Connecticut Critic's Circle Award for Best Actress (From The Mississippi Delta), and two Joseph Jefferson Awards (Best Ensemble - From The Mississippi Delta and Best Actress - The Colored Museum). She has been nominated for Pennsylvania's Barrymore Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical (Another Midsummer Night); and for the Helen Hayes Award for Best Actress and the Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble, both for From The Mississippi Delta.
Caryn Desai (director) has received numerous directing awards and nominations, including LA Weekly, Drama-Logue, Robby, Ovation, and NAACP. Directing credits: ICT's first annual A Christmas Carol; Visitng Mr. Green; Raisin; Master Harold and the Boys; Swinging on a Star; Bed and Sofa; Having Our Say; All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten; Greetings; Beast on the Moon, Lies and Legends; Jar the Floor; Tapestry; Romance/Romance; Home; A Shayna Maidel; Shakuntala (also adapted by her); and Contradictions (her original work).
Dinah Was is produced by Shashin Desai; set design is by Tom Buderwitz; costumes are by Garry Lennon; lighting design is by Jeremy Pivnick; and casting is by Michael Donovan Casting. International City Theatre is the Resident Professional Theater at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, and the recipient of the Margaret Harford Award from the Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle for "Sustained Excellence in Theater."
Dinah Was runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 2:00 pm, April 30 through May 23. Tickets are $34.00 and $37.00 on Thursdays, and $37.00 and $42.00 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, except opening night which is $50.00 and $60.00 and includes a reception with the actors following the performance. Preview performances take place at 8:00 pm on Tuesday, April 27; Wednesday, April 28; and Thursday, April 29. Preview tickets are $29.00.
International City Theatre is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center at 300 E. Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach. For reservations and information, call the ICT Box Office at (562) 436-4610.