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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 6,

2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Hallelujah: Ann Duquesnay Composes Onstage and Off

Multi-talented Ann Duquesnay (DU-k-nay), best known for her Tony

Award-winning performance in the hit Broadway musical “Bring in Da

Noise, Bring in Da Funk” (1996), may be getting off easy these days at

the George Street Playhouse. She has not been asked to either compose

any new music or to augment any of the late and great composer Julie

Styne’s score for “Hallelujah, Baby!,” the 1967 Tony Award-winning

musical currently revised and updated by the show’s original author,

Arthur Laurents. After talking with the musical theater star in the

green room before rehearsal, I came to the conclusion that she would,

if asked, come through with a few extra notes. “Yes, I compose. It’s a

gift,” she acknowledges. The other gift she says is Laurents. “He’s an

incredible man at 87. What a joy he is to work with.” Do I detect a

sense of relief in her voice that at this time in her career she only

has contribute her phenomenal voice to play the role of “Momma” and

sing the music of one of Styne’s best, but also least known, scores,

which features the lyrics of Comden and Green?

Duquesnay says that her talent for composing was nurtured in “Spunk”

(1990), based on three tales by Zora Neale Hurston. It was the first

show that Duquesnay performed in for director George C. Wolfe at the

Public Theater and featured music by Chic Street Man, who also

performed. “After ‘Spunk,’ she says, “I was encouraged by Wolfe to

write more music and vocal arrangements for ‘Noise-Funk.’” This is the

Wolfe-Savion Glover song and tap dance collaboration that traces the

history of African-Americans from their journey on slave ships to not

being able to get a taxi, and that also had music by Daryl Waters and

Zane Mark. “We started work on that show with no script, no title, no

nothing,” she says, sounding almost astonished by this admission.

“I’ll be forever grateful to Wolfe for giving me the chance to show

what I can do,” she says, explaining how Wolfe was impressed with how

she could put music to the dialogue as it was being written and to the

prose of vintage newspaper articles about the black migration. “I even

put my own nickname into a song, as well as a memory of my mother

shouting down at me from a window in our five story walkup in Harlem

when I was a little girl and not wanting to come in from playing —

“Mootsie, come on up here girl.”

Almost spontaneously, Duquesnay starts singing the lyrics of another

song from “Noise-Funk” that she says was inspired by her parents, who

were sharecroppers in the South and migrated to Harlem when she was

five years old:

Uh huh, Uh huh, Somethin’ from Nothin’, Somethin’ from Nothin’,

Workin’ So Hard.

What is immediately evident is the passion that she expresses in her

singing and that she shares so willingly. Some of this largesse

undoubtedly comes from the determination of her parents to provide a

better life and education for their children. “They stayed together,”

she says. “I didn’t come from a broken home. They worked hard, had

property, and sent me to a private school — Saint Jean Baptiste on

75th and Lexington. I was the only black girl in the school. I had a

brother, but they are all gone now. It’s just me.”

In “Hallelujah, Baby!” Duquesnay finds herself traveling through time

and once again in a story that presents a view of black America’s

struggle for equality. The musical unfolds in a series of

decade-spanning episodes in which the characters are always the same

age. It follows Georgina and her “Momma” through the challenges of a

society struggling with segregation, economic hardships, two world

wars, and the momentous fight for civil rights.

Duquesnay says that although her mother remains her role model for her

strength, she has patterned “Momma” after her aunt, her father’s

sister, by using her physical characteristics. She says: “Like ‘Momma’

in the show, who doesn’t approve of Georgina’s beau, my aunt never

liked the man I wanted to marry. Racism also exists among black

people. In my case it was because he was very dark.”

‘I’m enjoying doing the role of Momma (originated on Broadway by

Lillian Hayman) especially because I was not familiar with the show

and have no comparisons to make,” says Duquesnay. Momma is a maid,

quite a character, and very set in her way. She wants her daughter

Georgina (played by Suzzanne Douglas in the role that garnered a Tony

for Leslie Uggams) to remain a maid. But the daughter wants to go into

show business and be a singing star. Although Momma wants her to be

safe, she is no fool. Momma knows the game of life and how to play it.

Duquesnay is unusual among singers in that she has never had any

formal training in either composition or voice. Sharing memories, she

says, “I was only 16 in the late 1950s and still in school when I won

the Amateur Night contest at the Apollo. The prize was that I got a

week booking on stage with Bo Diddly and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.”

Despite a voice that has been described as fiercely strong and deeply

soulful, Duquesnay says she had always shied away from cabaret and

nightclub gigs because you had to face people head on, whereas in

theater you have a character to hide behind. Despite this, she chose

to make her cabaret debut in a tribute to Billie Holiday at the

intimate Rainbow & Stars, on the 65th floor at Rockefeller Center, and

conquered another hurdle.

But “theater is my passion,” says Duquesnay, whose extraordinary and

versatile voice has allowed her the opportunity to portray such

legendary divas as Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, and most recently,

Alberta Hunter in “Cookin’ at the Cookery.” “I won’t give you my age,”

she says emphatically, “but unlike many younger singers, I have a

sense of who they were. I have been told that I bring the grit and the

pathos to those great ladies of blues and jazz.”

Duquesnay is forthright about her resistance to just being herself on

the stage. This despite the encouragement she receives from friends to

produce a CD of her own, something she says she is contemplating.

“When I do Alberta Hunter, people always come up to me and ask, ‘Where

to get a CD?’ When I tell them in the lobby, they say, ‘I’ve already

got Hunter, I want your CD.” She tells me, “I’m working on it.”

Perhaps it was singing the blues in her first Broadway show — “Blues

in the Night” (1982) — that inspired her to write a song that came

from who she is and not from a character. During the filming of “Marci

X,” in which she had a featured part, she realized how quickly a song

is born. “I was having my makeup applied and a tear fell from my eye.

The makeup artist said, ‘Oh, don’t cry Miss Ann.’” And I said, ‘That’s

a great title for a song.’ The next morning I came back with the song

and sang it to her,” she says, offering me a sampling that came close

to putting a tear in my eye.

You know the world has gotten crazy, It’s not like before, Don’t give

up, Keep holdin’ on, Help is on the way, It’s over at the door Don’t

cry Miss Ann.

Duquesnay had her first taste of stardom in the legendary way. It was

during the run of “Bubbling Brown Sugar” starring Cab Callaway at the

Westbury Music Fair. “I was playing the Blues Lady and the Gospel Lady

and was also the understudy for the lead. During the fourth week of a

six-week run, the leading lady, Marilyn Johnson, was struck by a

falling light fixture during curtain calls at the matinee and taken

away in an ambulance. I had never rehearsed the part, but had done my

homework. I went on that evening. On my way home I looked up at the

stars and said to my father, who was deceased but always a big

Callaway fan, ‘Did you see me? I’m on stage with Cab Calloway.’ Cab

was so pleased with my performance that I played the lead for the rest

of the run and for the remainder of the national tour. And yes,

Marilyn and I are friends to this day.”

Duquesnay made her Broadway debut in “Blues in the Night” (1982),

fortifying her love for the blues genre, and sang in a 1991 musical at

McCarter, “Betsey Brown,” by Ntozake Shange and Emily Mann. Further

Broadway appearances as Glinda, the good witch in the 1984 revival of

“The Wiz,” and as Gran Mimi in the Jelly Roll Morton musical “Jelly’s

Last Jam” (1992) and “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” (1999) confirmed

Duquesnay as a performer who had, as one critic described, “a voice

that can bring down the roof.” About her voice, she tells me, “I never

had a voice lesson until last year when I had a slight vocal issue. I

went for help to vocal coach Joan Lader. Now I do the warm up

exercises. Education and training is a good thing, but if you can’t

get it, don’t let go of your dream.” You can be sure that Duquesnay

has not. One day she may hear a familiar voice calling, “Come on up

Mootsie.” She will undoubtedly answer, “Not now Momma, I’m still

playing.”

@ltHallelujah, Baby is a co-production between George Street

Playhouse in New Brunswick (732-246-7717), where it is playing from

Tuesday, October 5 through November 7, and Washington, D.C.’s, Arena

Stage, where it will move following this engagement.


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