Dallas — From the very beginning Curtis King, Founder and President of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, has been committed to supporting new and emerging artists through providing an opportunity for the development and staging of their works. Part of the Academy’s programming is through their Dress Performance Theatre Series featuring one-person shows that are usually presented in the Clarence Muse Café Theatre. Under the direction of Curtis King, Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings opened Friday, Jan. 22, featuring DeMille Cole-Heard in his new one-person show about legendary soul singer Al Green.
Al Green was a dominant vocalist during the 1970s, selling more than 20 million albums. Green has been awarded 11 Grammys, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2014 recognized as one of the Kennedy Center honorees. His is one of the most distinguishable voices in American popular music, famous for its gospel flourishes and riffs, its wide range and high notes. Green squeezed into the space reserved for performers that are unthreateningly titillating meaning that both men and women liked him and responded to his music. Listeners of that generation typically know the lyrics to all of his hit songs. While his life as an entertainer is not without scandal, Green never completely abandoned his gospel roots or the church. Without stopping his pop career, he became an ordained minister in the mid-‘70s, and continues to minister between tour seasons to his church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis.
Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings is a program in two acts that covers the highlights of Green’s life from childhood through the middle ‘70s after the start of his ministry. Cole-Heard sings 10 songs: “L.O.V.E.,” “Back Up Train," "Precious Lord,” “Can’t Get Next to You,” “Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Simply Beautiful,” “Love and Happiness,” “Take Me to the River” and “Sinful Yet Righteous.” The most successful was “Let’s Stay Together.” The audience could not resist singing along and people were dancing at their seats. Not just moving gently; full on hip-swinging, arm-waving dancing. He received a standing ovation after that number.
Al Green has a definite vocal style, but his lyrics are clearly delivered and easy to understand. As he moves up and down the scale he loses neither pitch accuracy, nor brightness of tone. Mimicking Green’s voice must include that same accuracy and clarity. Cole-Heard struggled in this area. He has a decent singing voice and he came very close sometimes to sounding like Al Green. However, in an effort to mimic the Green sound, on some songs Cole-Heard chewed and swallowed the lyrics to the extent that they became undecipherable. Performing for an audience that knows and sings along with every lyric does not remove the responsibility for enunciating the words clearly enough for people to understand them.
Assuming so many character voices in addition to singing 10 songs in rehearsals and performance can be vocally taxing. A tired voice will start to sound dry and that vocal fatigue and dryness can affect pitch. It might be advisable to have a glass of water onstage the next time this piece is produced.
This is a living script, written by Cole-Heard, so as such, it is developing and changing. One-person shows are difficult, but there is a story here, and Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings is worth the investment of time and effort to refine it. Some additional editing and rewriting is needed to strengthen the piece as it moves forward, but that is expected with new works.
Key to the progress of an emerging piece is the right director for the property at its various iterations. There were moments in the story when the character was preparing for intimacy with a lover and Cole-Heard was positioned in the bedroom. He removed his shirt, lowered himself forward on the bed onto his stomach then while supporting himself on his left elbow, reached up with his right arm to turn off the bedside lamp. When he clicked the switch, the scene went to black, transitioning for a costume change that was covered by musical interludes from the band. This was a good solution for suggesting a sexual situation without literal or graphic action. Very nice direction there from King.
One of the best production decisions was hiring musical director and keyboardist Xavier Jackson, bassist Tim Waites, and drummer Jeremiah Evans. They were impressive, especially Jackson. They came very close to stealing the show, not because they were too prominently featured, but because they were that good. The musical interludes included motifs from songs of the period that established time, mood and place for Cole-Heard when the next scene opened.
It is possible that at some point in the future we will hear that DeMille Cole-Heard has translated his one-person show into a movie script. He told the audience that this is part of his dream. His would not be the first dream to have been initiated in the Clarence Muse Café Theatre.