an article on characters and a movie, musical with amazing dance, dancers, actors and actresses
I did so much enjoy watching “Stormy Weather” starring Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson and Lena Horne. I am so surprised I hadn’t seen this lively and fun African American musical. I did however see the dance scene of the Nicolas Brothers and the Katherine Dunham dancers cause of my love of the art of dance, and then again I may have seen this and because it has been so long, just not remember, my memory is really jacked up.
I got my name from a musical (white one) Mitzi Gaynor, “South Pacific”, my mother had me watching a lot of musical when I was younger from “Porgy and Bess” her personal favorite to “Singing in the Rain”. I’ve seen musicals black and white but I was more so drawn to the dancing scene more than anything and I didn’t really get off into tap dancers until I saw Gregory Hanes in “Taps” and “White Nights” then later with Savior Glover, even thought I watched Shirley Temple and now Mr. Bill Bo Jangles Robinson (and not that older black guy). It wasn’t I didn’t enjoy it I just wasn’t drawn to it, until later. Watching “Stormy Weather” I saw a lot of things that was taken and used in “Bamboozled” a Spike Lee filmed that I absolutely enjoyed. With all the wonderful talent in this film it was so hard for me to narrow it down to three people. I loved the buffoonery in the movie, we are not all lawyers and doctors and we are not all lazy and stupid, there are all kinds of “us” and we have got to laugh at ourselves and our cousin sometime. I do know the seriousness of what “black face” allocated to, the struggle though has been hard fought and still ongoing, but doors had to be opened and I honor that. As much as I love Cab Calloway and the grace and beauty of Lena Horne and it goes without mentioning the man Bill Robinson, I didn’t choose any of them. I didn’t even choose Fats Waller whom had his hand in the production of many other musicals. The three I choose to write my paper on are; Ada Brown (I am a fan of the Blues more so than Jazz), Katherine Dunham and the Nickolas Brothers.
Back again to suffering, I love the blues! It is just something about the blues whether for real or for show, I think it is just the pure honesty or depiction of the black experience. The women of the blues and the men of the blues so close to spirituals and work songs, songs from the belly of Mississippi, black folks. Ada Brown born May 1st, 1890 in Kansas City and died on March 31, 1950 was both like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone classified as a Jazz singer, but who sang the blues well. Ada Brown came from a musically inclined family who cousin was James Scott a ragtime composer and performer. Ada Brown was noted as not being a stockyard blues shouter but a classical blues performer (she was well trained).
Ada Brown had toured nationally and internationally, she worked the Vaudeville circuits and was an original founder of the Negro Actors Guild of America. In the late 30’s she performed at the London Palladian (like Carnegie Hall of New York). And of course she performed in “Stormy Weather” with Fats Waller and then in “Harlem to Hollywood”. Ada’s first recording was with Bennie Morton with, “Evil Mama Blues”. Ada other recordings includes; “111 Natural Blues”, “Break O’Day Blues”, “That Ain’t Right” and “Crazy Bout my Lollypop”. Ada also performed in several Broadway Musicals. And even though I like the grit and grime of Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington, Alberta Hunter and Millie Jackson, I found the mellow sounds of Ada Brown very enjoyable too.
What can I say about the Nicholas Brothers? It took a minute for things to come back to me, but the dance scene we watched of the Nicholas Brothers in “Stormy Weather” I had seen before. I remember them in I believe in “Cotton Club” and in “Taps”, I remember them dancing with Dorothy Dandridge and with Gene Kelly. In doing this research I have found out that they have taught some of my favorite people whom I enjoy to see dance, like Michael Jackson, Debbie Allen and Janet Jackson. The Nicholas Brothers are one of those rare talents that were spotted, recognized without having a sign on them sort-of speaking. Hailing from Philadelphia, the sons of musicians, their mother played the piano and their father played the drums Fayard born in 1914 and Brother Harold born in 1921 were immediately successful. Fayard at the age of three seated in the front row of his parents performances got to witness great black Vaudeville acts including Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson. The Nicholas Brothers opened at the Cotton Club and worked with great acts like Duke Ellington and fellow “Stormy Weather” stars Cab Calloway. The brothers filmed their first film in 1932 Eubie Blake and his orchestra. The brothers had an extensive career spanning decades, and not just as a pair they also held their own apart for the infamous duet. They have performed for the Queen of England and for several Presidents of the United States. The brothers also worked with Josephine Baker and while performing in England they were so impressed by the European Ballet Companies that they absorbed much of the ballet techniques that they incorporated the moves in their jazz dances and displayed them into their routine in the 1937 film “Calling All Stars”.
In 1938, the Nicholas Brothers beckoning back to the Cotton Club got into a dance battle with the trio the Berry Brothers, which has said to been a part of show business history!!! In the 1940’s the Nicholas Brothers danced in six movies done by 20th Century Fox.
Their accomplishments are still being compiled to this very day, they are still being honored. Harold received a Bay Area Theater Critics Award for Best Principle Performance and Faynard won a Tony Award for co-choreography for “Black and Blue”.
The Brothers have received a Kennedy Center Honors, the Ellie Award, the Gypsy Award, and The American Black Lifetime Achievement Award. They were inducted into Apollo Theater Hall of Fame. They also received their star on Hollywood Boulevard. The film tributes has included The National Film Theater in London, The D. C. film fest in Washington, at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York and the Cinemtique de la Dames’ in France. They have been the recipients of the 1998 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Lifetime Achievement Award in Modern Dance and were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003. Their creativity and genius is what makes the Nicholas Brothers legends of the dance world.
As they say, “saving the best for last”. Katherine Dunham has been a longtime favorite person of mine. I remember Dunham not just for her artistic beauty (personally and professionally), her boldness in dance interrupation, or her books and studies into our history, origins, rituals and religion. She’s most remunerable to me when in 1992 at the age of 82; she staged a fast in protest, to bring attention and to stop the deportation of Haitian boat refugees. And oh “we” blacks just love Bill Clinton, check his record on refugees from Haiti. Katherine Dunham life is a life full of humanities and social and political aspiration, we should all aspire to the things that she has done, the people and lives she has touched, being able to look and see need and do something about it (with or without the government monies).
Born in 1909 and passing in 2006 this choreographer, dancer, teacher, anthropologist, and author was born in Chicago and raised in Illinois. She has a BA in Social Anthropology and a Masters from Northern University. She was inspired by fellow anthropologist (while getting her BA) who stressed the importance of the survival of African culture and ritual in understanding African-American culture. Katherine Dunham like Zora Neale Hurston found a way to combine their interest in anthropology traveling to the West Indies (Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, and Martinique) to research and collect rituals, dance, and folklore and bring them back to the states.
Dunham was so enthralled with the things she learned in Haiti that she lived their half the time and became priestess in “vodum” religion. Mrs. Dunham wrote several articles and three books on her observation in Haiti; she also developed a vocabulary of movement which would form the core of the Katherine Dunham Technique. The Dunham Technique is a mixture of African, Caribbean movement integrated with ballet and modern dance. Mrs. Dunham formed dance groups and made dances for several films. She and her company performed in “Cabin in the Sky” a black Broadway musical. She was married for 47 to her theatrical designer who was artistic collaborator of all her projects. Dunham appeared in nine Hollywood movies and several foreign films between 1941 and 1959, movies including “Carnival of Rhythm” (1939), “Star-Spangled Rhythm” (1942), “Stormy Weather” (1943), “Cabash” (1948), “Bootl E Riposta” (1950), “Mambo” (1954).
Like the Nickolas Brothers, Katherine career has spanned decades, she’s taught everybody who’s anybody in the dance world, her technique is still being taught today, including by my all-time favorite Alvin Ailey and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.
A bold political activist and leading figure in any and every community that she has been a part of whether here in the states or aboard, she has won several honors and awards and was the first black choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera. Mrs. Dunham was the cultural adviser to the President of Senegal where she attended Senegal’s first World Festival of Negro Arts as a representative from the United States.
In 1951 Dunham premiered “Southland” an hour-long ballet about lynching (only shown in two countries with the US not being one). She also turned down performances when she was asked to replace a few members of her company that was considered too dark. She wouldn’t return to the south until segregation had ended and she sued hotels whom had practice unfair treatment. I can go on forever about Katherine Dunham which a lot of his information was new to me (even though I attended last year the tribute to her, here in Detroit).
Dunham received the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for her life devoted to performing arts and service to humanities (1979), Kennedy Center Honor’s Award (1983), Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award (1987), Induction into the Hall of Fame (1987), and she directed the reconstruction of several of her works for and by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater opening their 1987-1988 season.
It is amazing to me, the accomplishments of a lot of the stars in “Stormy Weather” and not just the ones I reported on. They lived in a time with strong racial discrimination, lynching, segregation I mean all the things we read about and seen in doctormentaries and accomplished still the things, honors, studies/degrees that they accomplished. That is dedication, determination, passion and the doors that they opened for us, so that we could voice criticism of their art and how the displayed is truly amazing. In our so busy lives sometimes full of substance sometimes not, I want to thank you for reminding me to look back at those who have come before me, not just at the characters they play but at their personal character, it does build strength.