Sometimes there’s an "Aha" moment. For actress/singer Vanessa Shaw, it happened in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, where she was on tour with a production of "Camelot" starring Robert Goulet. She was playing a small role, the same one she had performed on Broadway for three months the previous year. As was her morning ritual, she left her hotel room to go to Starbucks to get coffee and a newspaper. On that prescient day the newspaper reveals a major news story, the sad news that the famous African-American singer Marian Anderson had just died at the age of 96. Accompanying the story was the famous aerial view of Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial concert on Easter Sunday in 1939 to a huge audience of 75,000 people plus millions of radio listeners. All this in response to the cancellation of a concert at Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall that proclaimed, "Concerts by white artists only." That was a groundbreaking moment in history. Not only was Anderson a celebrated singer, but she also was a beacon in overcoming racial bias.
Shaw was fascinated by details of Anderson’s career. "I took my coffee and the paper back upstairs and began writing in long hand," she says in a phone interview. Like many other performers including other African American women such as Melba Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, Shaw decided to make a performance vehicle for herself by writing a play in which she would portray Marian Anderson.
The resulting "play with music," "Welcome Home, Marian Anderson," has toured extensively across the United States and abroad, and is playing at the Bristol Riverside Theater in Bristol, PA, through Sunday, February 10. And it is not a one-person show, but rather a play with music that focuses on one central character, Anderson. Two other actors, Mark Edward Lang and Ivan Thomas, play multiple people who were part of Anderson’s life, including a voice teacher; her manager, Sol Hurok; the president of the NAACP; and even a Nazi. Thomas also provides musical accompaniment.
Shaw says that beginning during the time she was in Portland she was feeling particularly frustrated with her career. Not only was she no longer young enough to play the ingenue roles, but also it was a time when musical tastes were changing. A trained classical musician, she says, "I don’t really sing pop music, rhythm and blues, or gospel." She was auditioning a lot and not getting as much work as she wanted. "I had come a long way, but now all I could get were small parts."
It required imagination to adapt material about Anderson for herself. After all, Anderson had been a tall, regal woman, and Shaw was only five foot three and a half and not a contralto. "But I was fascinated by the fact that an African American woman was famous for singing classical music. It’s a very difficult genre to enter." So began her research into Anderson’s life and career. Shaw had seen Anderson on the "Bell Telephone Hour" and "The Ed Sullivan Show." And growing up she had always taken special interest when anything about Anderson or another famous classical opera singer, Leontine Price, came to her attention.
There were things to learn about Anderson that went beyond the basic data, such as her birth in 1897 in South Philadelphia or the death of her father when she was a child. Some sources say that her mother worked as a cleaning woman and laundress to support the family; maybe, but she’s also noted as an educated woman and a teacher according to Shaw. Whatever the details, it was a fortunate place to live as the churches in Philadelphia offered Anderson opportunities to sing that led to funding for her early vocal studies.
Shaw terms her piece a "melodrama." I suggest, "mellow drama" which earns a laugh. Thanks to her background in theater, she says, "I understand what the audience will pay attention to and not fall asleep. Splitting the difference between what a classical audience would look for and what a theater audience would prefer, I basically have broken the music down to theater-friendly classical musical." And she also searched out humor that, with a little poetic license, adds to a more balanced look at Anderson beyond the almost-cast-in-stone image, which is quite formal.
Shaw’s research unearthed some Anderson idiosyncrasies. "I think she was a bit of a control freak and also prone to dramatic outbursts. I’ve used that," she says. "It’s nice to be a saint, but rarely are people interested in seeing plays about saints. Audiences want to see the cracks, what makes this person tick as a human being." And she assures me that there is also sex. "Marian was madly in love with her husband. They met when she was 20 and he was dashingly handsome and quite the player." According to "Women in History," he was architect Orpheus H. Fisher, whom she had known since childhood.
Shaw is not married, opting instead for the nomadic life of an actor and singer who tours. Like Anderson, she has also toured overseas. The daughter of a career military man and a nurse, Shaw began her life as an army brat. Both she and her brother were born on the Fort Bragg army base in North Carolina, but she spent a lot of her childhood in Columbus, Georgia. Her father married three times and, she says, "We always went with him." She says she was always able to sing and was encouraged by her high school teachers. "My father didn’t feel music was an appropriate profession," so she studied psychology at Mercer University in Macon, GA, but left before getting her degree, when someone gave her an entree to a person in "the business" in New York. When she arrived with suitcase in hand, her first step was to begin auditioning. "I was working right away."
Since she had never had any formal vocal training, friends suggested that she needed to study so that she could learn to preserve her voice. Never attending a music school, she studied privately. Her main teacher for about a dozen years was famed big band singer and recording artist Joe Williams. "When I first started to work with him, I was a lyric coloratura." He helped Shaw develop a "middle voice" for theater work and different techniques to help her care for her voice without over-stressing. "I’m always finding something new about my voice," she says.
In addition to her performance in "Camelot," she appeared on Broadway in the "Hello Dolly" company headed by Pearl Bailey in the title role (1964-1970). Later she was in the short-lived production of "Purlie" starring Robert Guillaume (1973) and "Timbuktu!" with Eartha Kitt (1978).
Beginning in the mid ’90s, she and "the same two guys" have been touring with Marian Anderson. "I don’t mind touring," she says. "I’ve been doing it all my life." In addition to appearing in touring companies of musicals, she has also made concert tours. She enjoys seeing new places and meeting and talking with people. "I’m amazed at how beautiful the United States is! The Grand Canyon took my breath away. And the grass in Kentucky is so green, it’s almost blue." She has traveled from San Francisco, to Portland, to Atlanta, to Little Rock and places in between as well as appearing overseas in Germany, France, England, and Australia. But there are a lot of places she would still like to go, especially Greece, Egypt, and all of Africa. "I’ve seen documentaries about Dubai with its fantastic architecture. It’s become an entertainment mecca. I want to go there, too."
When not touring, she still auditions, but now with much more freedom. Knowing that she has work with her own play that she can count on, the pressure is off. "It cuts down on the anxiety and money worries. I like that." And with a new manager, she’s hoping for an Off Broadway venue and a long run for "Marian Anderson."
Home base for Shaw is an apartment in New Jersey in one of those beautiful high-rise buildings with breathtaking views of Manhattan. There was another "Aha" moment regarding that. About three years ago, she was driving with a friend along Boulevard East in North Bergen. With her eye on one of the tall buildings, "I said, `Some day I’m going to live there.’" Her friend reminded her that she’d never be able to afford anything there. "Well, she was wrong."
"Welcome Home, Marian Anderson," through Sunday, February 10, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. $42. 215-785-0100.