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‘Queenie Pie’ examines issues of color

Karen Marie RichardsKeithGipsstar 'Queenie Pie.' | Phoby Keith Ian Polakoff

Karen Marie Richardson and Keithon Gipson star in "Queenie Pie." | Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

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‘QUEENIE PIE’

When: Opens Feb. 15 to March 5

Where: Chicago Opera Theater
at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $35-$125

Info: (312) 704-8414;
chicagooperatheater.org

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Updated: February 11, 2014 9:50AM



Growing up in Western Michigan, singer Anna Bowen knew that she was not the same as her black or white playmates and schoolmates. She simultaneously was perceived as a light-skinned black girl, thought of herself as biracial, and identified more with her Dutch-American white mother than her father’s African-American heritage.

Karen Marie Richardson, for her part, grew up in largely white Bloomingdale, Ill. — “We were the only black family on the block” — and though darker-skinned, she identified with her white friends and neighbors and her Barbie doll. “To an extent, you are what you see,” Richardson said. “Several years later, when more black families started moving to Bloomingdale,” she recalled, “their kids would say, ‘Why do you talk so white? Don’t you know that you’re black?’ ”

The two performers will address these questions not only through self-examination, but as the lead female characters in a new completion of jazz master Duke Ellington’s unfinished “street opera,” “Queenie Pie,” opening Chicago Opera Theater’s 2014 season Saturday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. The production is a collaboration between COT and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra (CJO).

Ellington began the work in 1962, revisiting it now and then from 1967 until his death in 1974. Since then it has been produced in various versions, all of which interpolate additional Ellington songs to complete the score.

“Queenie Pie” tells a partly biographical, partly fantastic story inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker, the first female African-American millionaire, who made her fortune selling hair and beauty products for blacks that over time were seen as affording customers with “good” — that is, straighter — hair.

Richardson plays the dark-skinned title character while Bowen plays her entrepreneurial rival, Cafe Au Lait, who is, as Bowen says, “like me, ‘cafe au lait’ in complexion.” The whole story, said director Ken Roht, who is white, is about a word that few want to confront inside or outside of the black community: colorism.

“Light-skinned,” “fair,” “light,” “high yellow” — all were used as complimentary terms from the early days of African slavery in the American colonies; “dark-skinned,” “black,” “dark” or “country” offered as their negative counterparts. Writers from Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison to poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes, and songwriter-performers from Ellington to Laura Mvula (last year’s “That’s Alright”) have taken up the issue of colorism and the social stratification that can accompany it. Oprah Winfrey recently featured a documentary on her cable network on the prejudice against “Dark Girls.”

“I went to pick up some moisturizing cream the other day,” Bowen said. “And I realized that the language on the products did not refer to moisture or ending dryness, but to giving me ‘lighter and brighter’ skin.”

The show takes this up directly. One of the scenes has projections and dialogue taken entirely from black hair and skin care advertising from the past.

And deeper than that, too. In the second, more fanciful act, when the women go to a magical Caribbean island, they’re “searching for an answer to what true beauty is,” Bowen said.

Both singers and Roht emphasize that the serious subject — whether in Ellington’s concept and compositions, Roht’s development of the work or their own performances — is treated “jovially,” as Richardson put it.

“Ellington goes from some of his most serious and beautiful music to jingles and ditties that intentionally offer the even silly side of these issues and situations.”

CJO general and artistic director Jeff Lindberg presented his newly orchestrated version of “Queenie Pie” based on Roht’s new adaptation of the libretto last month at the Long Beach Opera in Southern California. In addition to Richardson and Bowen, the cast includes Keithon Gipson as Holt Faye/King and Jeffrey Polk as Lil’ Daddy.

COT’s general director (and Long Beach Opera’s general director) Andreas Mitisek turned to Roht for this new version in part because of the director’s work in “collage theater.”

“An unfinished work with scenes that are disparate often can be best brought to life as a collage,” Roht said, “rather than trying to impose some new story on it. We’ve added four Ellington songs into the score that fit with the story, ideas and spirit that are there.”

The emphasis on colorism, Roht said, just keeps resonating — “first in thinking about the work, then in working with this great and very honest cast and then with our audience members as they respond, many of them telling us their own stories.”



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