507 Pacific Ave. Long Beach CA 90802 • Tel 562.432.5934 • Andreas Mitisek: Artistic & General Director

Queenie Pie

by DUKE ellington

Libretto by Betty McGettigan, additional material by Tommy Shepherd, adapted for LBO by Ken Roht.

Opera heads to Harlem for a Big Band makeover in the Duke’s only opera! Ellington’s opera buffa is the story of a Harlem belle, who finds an elixir of “everlasting anythingness” in her pursuit of straight hair and a crown. Our heroine is inspired by the life of Mme. C. J. Walker, hair product mogul and this country's first female African-American, self-made millionaire. Social status, beauty, and racial divides are redefined in the Duke’s raucous affair, forging hot jazz, cool blues, and gravity-defying bouffants.

 

 

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About queenie Pie

Queenie Pie is Duke Ellington’s only opera and one of his fairly unknown and rarely performed works. It blends big band sound and clever lyrics with the musical styles of opera, jazz, and musical theater. The title character, Queenie Pie, was inspired by the life of Madam C. J. Walker, the first female, African-American self-made millionaire, who developed and sold a line of hair and beauty products through innovative mail orders and door-to-door sales. Interested in the opera genre since the 1940s, Ellington started composing Queenie Pie in 1962, when he received a commission from the New York public TV station WNET. In collaboration with librettist Betty McGettigan, he worked on the opera until his death in 1974, but the work remained unfinished. Since then, different versions have been produced (1986 in Philadelphia and Washington, DC; 1993 in Brooklyn; 2008 by the Oakland Opera Theater; and in 2009 at the University of Texas, Austin).

a note from stage director ken roht

In August of this year, Andreas asked if I would be interested in undertaking the task of adapting Queenie Pie into a piece more resonant to current issues than the one presented at Kennedy Center almost thirty years ago.  After reading the existing libretto, I found it to be a perfect template to investigate the issues of intraracial colorism, while it offers great opportunities to explore movement-based storytelling. 

The story that I read in Ellington's original, unfinished version, augmented by director George C. Wolfe and librettist George David Weiss, pitted an older, more established professional woman, Queenie, against a younger upstart.  It addresses, in more or less a light-hearted way, the social malady of ageism, as it playfully prods concepts of “beauty”.  But the younger, Creole woman's name in the story is Café O'lay.  That was my cue to look at the drama of a light skinned African-American Café O'lay asserting her socially bequeathed entitlement over a dark-skinned Queenie, who in turn deploys years of resentment in a fierce desire to destroy Café O'lay. 

Since the story takes place in Harlem, I focused on the very rich period of the 1930's Harlem Renaissance, where/when Duke Ellington was fully established as a premiere band leader, to discover literary works that deal so adroitly with colorism. The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman, Black No More by George Schuyler and Quicksand by Nella Larson are so important to my understanding of this still-prevalent issue that sometimes divides people in African-American communities.  

It is an honor to lend my perspectives to the original libretto, which holds the work of so many talented forefathers. It remains an ebullient melodrama, due to Mr. Ellington’s amazing, multi-faceted music and the story’s dreamlike, highly allegorical plot of two vastly different women, who are very much the same, rediscovering their essences by making a spiritual journey to a mystical island.

Such a pronounced metaphoric landscape is the perfect canvas for imaginative staging that maintains the heart, the history and the “swing” represented in the original piece.  As a choreographer imagining the staging of Queenie Pie, I ruminated about it in the context of a ballet.  What movement and staging would best tell this story as if there were no words?  I looked to choreographers like Pina Bausch, and to the contemporary storytelling that director/choreographer Matthew Bourne employees, in order to best theatricalize the music in the piece.  Accordingly, sometimes exaggerated characterizations and surrealist imagery are part of our lexicon of staging devices.  Instead of maintaining absolute historical accuracy in all design elements, I find it much more interesting to play in the alternate universe that the original historical setting inspires.  The goal is to contemporize the piece, and also to make the piece timeless, dealing with challenging social issues that seem to persist. 

 

Edward kennedy "duke" ellington

Listen to NPR's jazz profile "Duke Ellington: The Composer."
 

Duke Ellington called his music "American Music" rather than jazz, and liked to describe those who impressed him as "beyond category. He remains one of the most influential figures in jazz, if not in all American music and is widely considered as one of the twentieth century's best known African-American personalites. As both a composer and a band leader, Ellington's reputation has increased since his death, with thematic repackagings of his signature music often becoming best-sellers. Posthumous recognition of his work includes a special award citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board.

Duke Ellington influenced millions of people both around the world and at home. He gave American music its own sound for the first time. In his fifty year career, he played over 20,000 performances in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East as well as Asia.

Simply put, Ellington transcends boundaries and fills the world with a treasure trove of music that renews itself through every generation of fans and music-lovers. His legacy continues to live on and will endure for generations to come. Wynton Marsalis said it best when he said "His music sounds like America." Because of the unmatched artistic heights to which he soared, no one deserved the phrase “beyond category” more than Ellington, for it aptly describes his life as well. He was most certainly one of a kind that maintained a llifestyle with universal appeal which transcended countless boundaries.

Duke Ellington is best remembered for the over 3000 songs that he composed during his lifetime. His best known titles include; "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing", "Sophisticated Lady", "Mood Indigo", “Solitude", "In a Mellotone" and "Satin Doll". The most amazing part about Ellington was that he was the most creative while he was on the road. It was during this time when he wrote his most famous piece, "Mood Indigo" which brought him world wide fame.

When asked what inspired him to write, Ellington replied, "My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people".

Duke Ellington's popular compositions set the bar for generations of brilliant jazz, pop, theatre and soundtrack composers to come. While these compositions guarantee his greatness, what makes Duke an iconoclastic genius, and an unparalleled visionary, what has granted him immortality are his extended suites. From 1943's Black, Brown and Beige to 1972's Uwis Suite, Duke used the suite format to give his jazz songs a far more empowering meaning, resonance and purpose: to exalt, mythologize and re-contextualize the African-American experience on a grand scale.

Duke Ellington was partial to giving brief verbal accounts of the moods his songs captured. Reading those accounts is like looking deep into the background of an old photo of New York and noticing the lost and almost unaccountable details that gave the city its character during Ellington's heyday, which began in 1927 when his band made the Cotton Club its home.''The memory of things gone,'' Ellington once said, ''is important to a jazz musician,'' and the stories he sometimes told about his songs are the record of those things gone. But what is gone returns, its pulse kicking, when Ellington's music plays, and never mind what past it is, for the music itself still carries us forward today.

Duke Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966. He was later awarded several other prizes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973, the highest civilian honors in each country. He died of lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, a month after his 75th birthday, and is buried in the Bronx, in New York City. At his funeral, attended by over 12,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion, "It's a very sad day...A genius has passed." (reprinted from www.dukeellington.com)

Synopsis

Today, in Harlem 1937, Queenie has won her tenth Queenie Pie title, a national honor bestowed on the most talented and powerful beautician in the country.  Queenie has taken her years of resentment at being the dark-skinned young woman surrounded by her family of lighter-skinned African Americans, and turned it into an unstoppable business force, always getting her what she wants.  After the competition, Queenie wants a big congratulatory party so, par usual, she throws one for herself, with lots of her fabulous friends in attendance, her on-again-off-again lover and business manager Holt Fay fluffing her up, and  with the undying efforts of her manservant, and often spiritual advisor, Lil Daddy.   A yearly after-party that is the popular desitation of the Queenie Pie competitors and their retinues, Queenie's door is wide open to receive admirers and the like.  

In the door comes Cafe Au Lait, a competitor for the Queenie Pie crown, and a sore loser.  Cafe Au Lait is a younger, light-skinned beauty from New Orleans, flaunting her strategically refined sense of entitlement.  Queenie may have won the battle for the Queenie Pie crown, but Cafe Au Lait is fixed on winning the war.  At Queenie's party, Cafe Au Lait announces that she is going to set up a beauty shop in Harlem, and is dedicating herself to winning next year's Queenie Pie crown.  To drive home the point, she seduces Queenie's man, the opportunistic Holt Fay, who is transfixed with this light-skinned beauty. 
 
In no time at all, Cafe Au Lait has secured Holt's services as business manager, even though he insists on continuing to work with Queenie, as well.  As Cafe Au Lait rises in popularity, Queenie is stewing in jealousy and resentments.  The rivalry comes to a boiling point when Holt goes to Queenie  with the ulterior motive of helping Queenie's business, but he is actually there to steal some of Queenie's business advantages for Cafe Au Lait's Beauty Palace.  The very jealous Cafe Au Lait catches wind that Holt is with Queenie, suspects a romantic tryst, and goes to Queenie's... with a gun.  Attempting to shoot Queenie, she inadvertently kills Holt, instead.  
 
Cafe Au Lait is sentenced to prison. Queenie is plummeted into a deep depression.  After a time, her ever-present manservant Lil Daddy persuades Queenie to sail to a remote island where she can procure a magical plant with ingredients that will substantially enhance Queenie's beauty business.  
 
As Cafe Au Lait continues to learn a profound sense of humility in prison, Queenie travels to the remote island and is soon vying for the affections of the island's king.  She is intoxicated by the allure of this beautiful island, but is even more drawn to the idea of being a real queen.  Soon, the king recognizes Queenie's selfish intentions and rejects her, leading Queenie to come to terms with her profound addiction to manipulation and power-grabbing.  
 
Meanwhile, Cafe Au Lait is released from prison and a compassionate Lil Daddy goes to her and tells her of a remote island and a magical plant that will help her to rebuild her career.  Lil Daddy knows that what Queenie and Cafe Au Lait both need,  before they can truly go on with their lives, is a reconciliation with on another.  So, with Lil Daddy's help, Cafe Au Lait sails to the remote island.  
 
On the island, both women stripped of entitlements and delusions, Queenie  and Cafe Au Lait see each other as inspiring reflections of one another.  They decide to work together to cultivate beauty, internal and external, that helps women embrace who they really are.  
 
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Karen Marie Richardson

Queenie Pie

Karen Marie is overjoyed to be making her debut with LBO. She has performed in Too Hot to Handel as the Alto soloist (Auditorium Theatre and Detroit Opera House). Her Off Broadway debut was in Sleep No More as Stella Sinclair where she sang duets with P!nk and John Legend. Her favorite regional theatre credit is Motormouth Maybelle, Hairspray (Merry Go Round Playhouse). She is currently working on her solo music project, fusing Jazz, Soul, and Pop to create a new sound (release  in early 2014). Karen Marie’s voice was also utilized in Chicago’s 2009 city elections. She holds a BFA in Musical Theatre from Millikin University. www.karenmarieis.weebly.com www.karenmarieis.bandcamp.com.

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Anna Bowen

Café O’Lay

Broadway: 101 Dalmatians. Off Broadway: The Music of Motown, Rom and Julz, Doubletime, Wanda's World. Regional: RENT, Aida, Evita, Once on This Island, Cinderella, Godspell, Aladdin. TV Credits: Castle, Mixology, Law and Order: SVU, As The World Turns. She can be seen around Los Angeles singing with the Overstreets New Orleans Jazz Band. Her non-fiction book, Me+You is available now at www.meandyouthebook.com: Ranging from ages 30-87, different couples share their stories of love, hardship and why they stay together through it all. For more information, please check out her website at www.AnnaBowen.com

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Keithon Gipson

Holt Faye/King

Keithon Gipson is excited to be making his debut with LBO.  He is a proud native Texan, graduate of the University of Texas, Austin with a Bachelor’s in Vocal Performance, and now resides in Chicago. Opera Credits: Le Nozze di  Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutti, Ghenghis Kahn (World Premiere), Queenie Pie.  Theater Credits: Ragtime, Camelot, Glimmerglass (World Premiere), How to Succeed  in Business, Show Boat, The Color Purple.  Bass/Baritone Soloist:  Faure Requiem, Mozart Requiem, Brahms Requiem, Five Mystical Songs, Copland Old American Songs,  Bach St. Matthew Passion

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Jeffrey Polk

Lil' Daddy/Witch Doctor

Jeffrey Polk has performed roles such as, Banzi, The Lion King; Annis, Jesus Christ Superstar; Announcer/Jerry, Dreamgirls; Victor, Smokey Joe's Cafe; Little Moe, Five Guys Named Moe; Master of Magic, EFX; Marcellus, The Music Man; Richie, A Chorus Line; Benny Southstreet, Guys & Dolls; Barnaby, Hello Dolly; Ken, Aint’ Misbehavin’. Mr. Polk has directed and choreographed, Smokey Joe's Cafe and been associate director for The Young American’s Outreach Tour. Special thanks: my mother, family, Philip, Mr. Ken Roht, cast, and staff for this opportunity.
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Jeffrey Lindberg

Conductor

Jeffrey Lindberg is Professor of Music at the College of Wooster, in his 28th year as Music Director of the Wooster Symphony Orchestra, and Artistic Director of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra. Under his direction, the CJO has performed with Joe Williams, Herbie Hancock, Doc Severinsen, Nancy Wilson, Quincy Jones, Kenny Burrell, and others. Lindberg has received numerous commissions from the Smithsonian Institution to transcribe original jazz orchestra recordings including two performed at The White House and new editions of the Ellington/Strayhorn Jazz Nutcracker and Peer Gynt Suites. Lindberg was commissioned by Dave Brubeck and the Jazz Institute of Chicago to transcribe six recordings of the Dave Brubeck Octet. Lindberg conducted and co-produced the CJO’s new CD, Burstin’ Out! with Cyrille Aimée.

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Ken Roht

Stage Director/Choreographer

Ken is a L.A. theater and film artist. Director/choreographer: Breasts of Tiresias/Tears of a Knife & Good Soldier Schweik, LBO; Ken Roht’s Miss Julie(n), MorYork Gallery; The Bloody Indulgent, feature film musical; Offenbach!!!, Bard Summerscape; Last Resort (wrote), REDCAT; the99c Holiday Spectacles (wrote). Choreographer: Philharmonic 360, NY Phil; Moses in Egypt & Monodramas, NYC Opera; Macbeth, Boston Lyric Opera; The Shaggs, Lookingglass Theatre et al.; Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Stones in His Pockets, Mark Taper Forum; Reza Abdoh’s Dar a Luz. Grants and commissions include Plum Foundation, Good Works, Audrey Skirball-Kenis, Dept. of Cultural Affairs-L.A., Durfee Foundation.

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Brandon Baruch

Light Designer

LA: The Second City’s A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens (Kirk Douglas Theater); bare - A Rock Musical (The Hayworth Theater), eve2 (Bootleg Theater), The 33rd and 34th Annual LA Weekly Theater Awards (Avalon Hollywood), Spring Awakening (The Arena Stage - Ovation Award Nomination), Roger Wodehouse’s Androgymnasium (Hollywood Fringe), The Good Boy (Bootleg Theater, LATC), and Ken Roht’s Same-O and Calendar Girl Competition (Bootleg Theater). NYC: Me Love Me (The Players Theatre), The Hat (Steve and Marie Sgouros Theatre), Someone’s Trying to Kill Me (HERE Arts Center), Wildboy ’74 (Walkerspace).
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Dabney Ross Jones

Costume Designer

Soprano Dabney Ross Jones has performed with the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers on their 2009 Tour of Germany, and with several local and major opera companies, including Celestial Opera, and Opera Pasadena. In 2007 and 2009, she sang in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with L.A. Opera and San Francisco Opera. In 2011, Mrs. Jones made her LBO debut in the SoCal Premiere of David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field as the enigmatic Virginia Creeper. In 2012, Mrs. Jones sang in the 2nd Annual Salzburg Voice Festival. As the Costume Supervisor for Queenie Pie she is anxious to create a story through her passion for costume design, fashion and art history.