Its 1920. The mood is as slinky as a satin gown and the air reeks of scandal.
Undressing Ellington’s audience with her eyes, Ma Rainey (billed as The Mother of the Blues and played by Di Shaw, co-founder of the Deck Chair Theatre) makes a bee-line for the damsels before her. No-one in a skirt is safe and there’s no question her tastes favour the fairer sex, as do the rest of the characters from A Saucy Little Secret.
While Rainey was singing in the same circles as Louise Armstrong, Bessie Smith (played by Libby Hammer and a regular fixture on Perth’s Jazz scene) entered the musical scene. There is speculation Rainey and Smith worked together and even that Rainey mentored the young dancer and singer. Smith went on to become one of the biggest stars after signing with Columbia Records and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame long after her death in 1937.
The animated Ofa Fotu (front vocal of Odette Mercy and Her Soul Atomics) plays Gladys Bentley who was renowned for donning a signature tuxedo and singing raunchy tunes. She ruled the day at Harry Hansberry’s “Clam House,” one of New York’s most notorious gay speakeasies. Bentley was never accepted into society and sadly “converted” by marrying a man and wearing dresses.
Natalie Gillespie (aka Journey Woman) portrayed Ethel Waters; oozing the star’s every 5’9 1/2’ inches of sex appeal. Waters married at 13, left her husband soon after and was discovered at 17. She went on to become one of the highest paying female performers of her time. Waters earned every cent and is quoted as saying, “I used to work from nine until unconscious,” but squandered the lot away. Ethel was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998, 2003 and 2007.
Alberta Hunter (performed by local singer Harry Deluxe) reached the notoriety of her contemporaries Smith and Waters but retired in 1950 to become a nurse. She was lured back into show business and continued to perform well into her 80’s.
Part narration, part musical each of these outstanding women is supported by local musicians Leah Van der Meulen, Almore James, Shane Lankester, Chris Foster and Robert Bresland and compare extraordinaire Magnus Danger Magnus. It’s unimportant the performers themselves do not physically resemble their characters; instead they channel these singers from the Roaring Twenties while wooing us with the blues and exuding the torment that only a gay black woman in the 1920’s can understand. The secret may be out, but the sauce still remains.