Cookin' at the Cookery
Also see Susan's review of Glory Days
It's a good time for retrospectives of great female singers onstage in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. While the name Alberta Hunter, the subject of Cookin' at the Cookery at MetroStage in Alexandria, may not be as famous as Ella Fitzgerald, who's being showcased in the current Arena Stage production nearby in Arlington, Hunter was a noteworthy performer from her teens until shortly before her death at age 89 in 1984, and the show does her justice.
Marion J. Caffey wrote and directed Cookin' at the Cookery, and the MetroStage production features two women who have polished their performances in earlier productions: two-time Tony Award nominee Ernestine Jackson and Janice Lorraine. (Because of a conflict in Jackson's schedule, Canadian actress Jackie Richardson – who won Canada's Dora Mavor Award for the role – will take over the MetroStage production on Feb. 7.)
The show is framed as a flashback around Hunter's return to performing in 1977, after a 20-year hiatus, at a Greenwich Village night spot called the Cookery. Lorraine plays Hunter in her spunky younger days, as well as several other roles (she does a surprisingly good Louis Armstrong impression), while Jackson is the regal Hunter discovering that time has not passed her by after all.
The four musicians – William Knowles, piano and conductor; Tony Addison, drums; Yusef Chisholm, bass; and David Cole, guitar – provide skilled and spirited accompaniment throughout from their bandstand on Dale F. Jordan's sleek set.
Hunter was not only a talented singer and songwriter, she was a true survivor. Born in Memphis, she sang in church but dreamed of making a living as a singer. She left home at 15 and headed to Chicago, where she made a false start singing refined songs in a silly high voice, but soon she found her own way and became a headliner.
Hunter's early career included writing "Downhearted Blues," a hit for Bessie Smith, and appearing in a Broadway revue called How Come? and opposite Paul Robeson in the London premiere of Show Boat, She remained active into the 1950s, but when her mother died while she was touring Korea with the USO, Hunter gave up singing and became a licensed practical nurse. She worked in a New York City hospital until she was forced to retire at age 70; the hospital staff did not know that she was then actually 82.