The Unsung Diva
nytheatre.com review by Judith Jarosz
August 12, 2011
The Unsung Diva is a one-act play with music about African American singer Matilda Sissieretta Joyner, who was called Sissieretta Jones and lived from 1869 until 1933. This is fascinating story about a real talent who is an important part of our country’s artistic history. It is a tale worth telling.
At a time when opportunities for African Americans were not abundant, especially in the arts (not enough has changed since then!), Jones rose from a middle class upbringing as a minster’s daughter to attend the Providence Academy of Music and the New England Conservatory in Boston, before going on to become a major star in Europe and the United States. She survived a drunken abusive husband, whom she divorced, and much racial prejudice along the way. At the height of her career, she was celebrated and decorated with many honors, and received the highest fee ever paid to a black artist in the United States at the time. But Europe was much kinder to her than her home country, and when she became frustrated at her lack of opportunities in the States, Jones formed a troupe of about 40 jugglers, comedians, dancers and singers who combined vaudeville, minstrel, musical revue and grand opera. Known as the Black Patti Troubadours (later renamed the Black Patti Musical Comedy Company) the group enjoyed great success for almost 20 years, performing for primarily white audiences in major cities across the U.S.
Although Jones sang popular songs of the era, she loved opera and critics acclaimed her voice as one in a million, even hailing her as America’s leading prima donna. One critic dubbed her “the Black Patti,” referring to Italian soprano Adelina Patti, and the name stuck, though Sissieretta disliked the name; referring to herself as “Madame Jones.” She longed to sing opera at the Metropolitan and was supposedly “considered” for roles, but it never happened. In fact the Met would not engage an African American in a leading role until Marian Anderson in 1955. Jones’s story has a melancholy ending. She became ill and at the age of 46 retired to do charity work, selling off her assets to survive. She died penniless of cancer in 1933 at the age of 74.
In The Unsung Diva, we meet Jones as her illness is progressing and her career waning. The stage is bare but for a trunk and sparse furniture. We see Jones worrying and reminiscing along with a maid/member of her troupe called Topsy. Angela Dean Baham, who also wrote the piece, portrays Jones with a regal elegance and Erica Richardson is the bright vivacious Topsy, who also appears as briefly as various other characters, as we flashback through Jones's memories. Both ladies have strong singing voices.
I do think this piece needs some rethinking and reshaping. We are only given snippets about Jones’s life, and although it intrigued me enough to google her and find the astonishing information above, not enough of this is given to us in the show. I always look forward to a good aria well performed and Baham, with a clear and agile soprano, acquits herself well with several, including “Caro Nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto and “Ah! Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. But as lovely as the singing is, the piece’s pace would perhaps be better served if only a part of each aria was presented, as stopping for each entire aria brought everything to a halt. After the show, I read in the director’s notes that the character of Topsy is supposed to be a ghost, something that I was not apparent to me at all in the performance. Other than stopping for arias, director Michael Mohammed keeps the show moving, but the ending is abrupt and confusing as Jones and Topsy begin to quarrel over jewelry and there is a blackout. Sound and lighting by Deanna Niebuhr serves well, and there are some nice costume and wig additions from Richard Battle. This story deserves to be told, and I hope that this team will continue to work on it.