“When Sanetta and I finished writing this play, we realized that this was much more than just a fun musical comedy fantasy,” Plummer continued. “In doing our research, the realities these iconic singers faced were as huge as their personalities. African-American women in the white male dominated entertainment industry have always struggled to be treated and compensated fairly. In spite of racism, sexism, drug abuse, LGBT discrimination, self-esteem and light versus dark-skinned issues, they managed to empower themselves to become some of the greatest entertainers of all time.”
Plummer said the idea for “Queens of the Blues” came when he went on Celebrity Cruise line’s legendary rhythm and blues cruise to produce his second production “Nothing But the Blues.” It was the first play ever produced in the cruise’s 15 year history.
The playwright’s sophomore production, “I Got’cha: The Story of Joe Tex & the Soul Clan” earned Plummer and his co-author, David Bar, III, two Black Excellence Awards in Chicago and 11 Onyx Awards in Pittsburgh for New Horizon Theater.
His and Gipson’s next production, “Vee Jay” Records is being made into a movie being produced by JuVee Productions, owned by Oscar nominated actress Viola Davis. Davis will also star in the movie.
“New Horizon has produced all of my plays and they show me nothing but love. Because of them, Pittsburgh is like a second home to me,” said Plummer, chief creative officer of Tri-Coastal Entertainment a production company that focuses on excellence in African-American entertainment in all mediums
So when Meggerson-Moore called him to ask what new play he had Plummer couldn’t say no.
“We had this idea for rock and roll singers in purgatory but we wanted to go on the cruise ship again so we changed it to blues singers in purgatory,” Plummer said. “It’s really a fun play because you get to learn things about them that you didn’t know. The research was fun. These women lived interesting lives through interesting times.”
Filled with 15 of the singers’ most popular songs from the 1920’s and 1930’s and 1960’s, Plummer and Gipson, expertly gives audiences a thorough glimpse into these ladies lives.
Every member of the cast truly embodied the character they portrayed.
“Queens of the Blues” opened with a rousing production of the gospel standard “Walking Up the King’s Highway,” which let the audience know that they were in for some amazing, toe-tapping music.
Stephanie “Stevie” Akers who was making her acting debut with New Horizon’s Theater played Mother of the Blues Ma Rainey to a tee.
Rainey, born Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgette was born in 1886 and was one of the earliest professional singers of the blues. Akers told audiences that Rainey began performing as a teenager and toured with her husband in the early 1900’s. The “See See Rider” and “Bo Weevil Blues” singer purchased a tour bus with her name on it and opened two theaters—The Lyric and the Airdome before dying of a heart attack in 1939.
Karla C. Payne returned to New Horizon Theater to portray blues singer Koko “Queen of the Blues” Taylor who was born Cora Watson, won 25 W.C. Handy Awards more than any other artist. Payne’s rendition of Taylor’s “Voodoo Woman” and “Wang Dang Doodle,” had the New Horizon Theater audience tapping their feet to the funky beat of the song. Taylor died in 2009.
Powerhouse vocalist Jaquea Mae portrayed Bessie Smith effortlessly. Smith, called Empress of the Blues, was the most popular female Blues singer of the 1920’s and 1930’s. She became the highest paid Black entertainer of the day heading her own shows and touring in her own railroad car. She died in 1937.
Jamesetta Hawkins better known as Etta James was played with sass and class by Terri Lynn Smith. Smith’s rendition of James’ classic “At Last” was a poignant and powerful moment in the play.
New Horizon Theater regulars Kevin Brown who portrayed Thomas Dorsey and Chuck Timbers who played Tampa Red rounded out the phenomenal cast with songs of their own which included “Tight Like That” and “Precious Lord.”
“Queens of the Blues” ran at the Maker Theater (Steel City Improv) from October 23 to Nov. 2.
“The choice that New Horizon made in producing ‘Queens of the Blues’ and my other three plays shows me that I am appreciated, respected and loved,” Plummer said. “I have the utmost gratitude for Joyce Meggerson-Moore and the City of Pittsburgh I thank you will all my heart.”