Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Leaving the Blues
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Review by Richard Connema | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of Roe, John, Eclipsed, and Into the Woods

Michael Gene Sullivan, Desiree Rogers,
and Matt Weimer

Photo by Lois Tema
The New Conservatory Theatre Center continues its 35th anniversary celebration by presenting the world premiere production of Jewelle Gomez's Leaving the Blues, based on the life of legendary blues singer-songwriter Alberta Hunter. NCTC commissioned this play with music three years ago.

The show opens with Alberta (Desiree Rogers), a 70-year-old nurse in a hospital, being told that she has to retire. Suddenly a "ghost" appears in tux, white gloves, and top hat, dancing across the floor. He is the spitting image of black comedian Bert Williams. Will (Michael Gene Sullivan) takes Alberta on a make-believe train trip of her past life.

We first see a young Alberta in a crowded backstage dressing room with two young tap-dancing men called the Calabash Cousins (Anthony Rollins-Mullens and Paul Collins). They clearly adore her. There is also a young performer named May (Jasmine Milan Williams). They tell about the problems traveling to clubs in the Deep South and even in Chicago in the 1920s and '30s. We also meet Lettie (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), a lesbian at the club who wants to take care of Alberta in every way possible.

The scene changes to France where Alberta is the toast of Paris. She feeds the press stories about her supposed Spanish lover. We learn that the two "cousins" are not cousins but lovers, though they are not allowed to show it publicly. After all, it is the 1930s. Later, we see Alberta backstage preparing for a professional comeback in New York and the "cousins" have opened a dance studio in the city.

Director Arturo Catricala has assembled a talented cast for this two hour and 10 minute production. Desiree Rogers, who morphs into Alberta Hunter, gives an outstanding tour de force performance. She skillfully transforms herself from age 20 to 70 with the tone of her voice. When she sings, her voice is harsh and raspy, like the voice of the real singer.

Michael Gene Sullivan is fantastic as Will. He is bigger than life with his wide-ranging motions and wonderful facial expressions. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Lettie gives an impressive performance and her expressions of love for Alberta are intense. Anthony Rollins-Mullens and Paul Collins as the two Calabash cousins and longtime lovers are enchanting. Their delightful signs of mutual affection and spur-of-the-moment bursts of tap-dancing routines are a joy. Matt Weimer dexterously plays three roles with difference accents. Jasmine Milan Williams shines in the small role of lively club performer May. Rounding out the cast is Tai Rockett who appears in the second act as Beebe, a young friend of Alberta. He has a striking voice and is a damn good actor.

Kuo-Hao Lo created an amazing set that changes to reflect the time and location. Director Arturo Catricala brings the best out of the cast with fast-paced direction. Keri Fitch provides chic, authentic period costumes.

Leaving the Blues plays through April 2, 2017, at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, Decker Stage, 25 Van Ness off Market. Tickets are available at or by calling 415-861-8972. Next up is the American premiere of Elizabeth Gregory Wilder Everything That's Beautiful running March 17 and through April 23rd.