Vintage Theater artistic director Bernie Cardell had no intention of making a statement when he chose Mary Louise Lee as one of the first black actors to play the iconic role of Momma Rose in the 1959 Broadway musical classic “Gypsy.”
But he did one anyway.
Lee’s presence in this particular real-life story makes a statement in itself about the positive advances that are being made in American theater. One in which we finally seem to be leaning towards a world where no one is inherently misinterpreted based on the color of their skin. And where each actor can bring a life of unique experiences and offer a new lens through which we can see archetypal characters again.
“I think it’s a political statement for me to be elected to this particular role,” Lee said, and that’s it: “If I can play the role, then my skin color won’t matter.”
Cardell didn’t even plan to direct the mother’s well-worn story of the hell show that projects her own failed vaudeville ambitions on her two traumatized daughters. But while she watched Lee dominate the stage as a maid in Aurora Fox’s 2019 production of “Caroline, Or Change,” she was shocked. “She has to play that role,” he thought.
And so, after the performance, he asked her to do it. Lee was momentarily surprised. Not because Rose was a white woman in the early twenties. Because it had never occurred to her that they would never ask for it. “But from the way he looked back at me, I knew in that moment that he would,” Cardell said.
This was before the assassination of George Floyd and the national movement to demand greater representation of artists of color both on stage and in administrative roles in the country’s predominantly white theater companies. Cardell only knew he would kill the role.
He also knew that returning a woman of Lee’s caliber to the stage of the Vintage Theater, where she previously played Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” would be a big hit. Lee’s professional stage career began when she was cast in “Beehive, the 1960s Musical” in what is now the Garner Galleria Theater while she was a graduate student at Thomas Jefferson High School.
Even then, Lee was breaking down racial barriers. In 1988, she was chosen to play Nancy in “Oliver,” becoming one of the first black students at a Denver public high school to land a starring role as a white character. And since she, yes, killed her, this opened the doors for many more minority students to participate in theater at her school.
Since then, Lee has sung the national anthem in front of 78,000 Denver Broncos fans and performed on “America’s Got Talent.” He has served on three Democratic National Conventions and on military bases around the world. She won the True West and Henry Awards for “Caroline, Or Change.”
There’s no fan of musical theater who wouldn’t want to see Lee dig his heels into Stephen Sondheim’s song, “Rose’s Turn” in “Gypsy”. Not in spite of his Blackness. For that.
Because no black woman had the opportunity to perform what has been called the most important female role in the history of American musical theater during the first 55 years of its existence. Not until Leslie Uggams was selected for a production at the Connecticut Repertory Theater in 2014. “I had always wanted to play Rose, but I assumed I would never consider it because it was based on a real person,” Uggams said in that moment. .
Cardell originally planned to stage “Gypsy” in June 2020, just before the pandemic stopped. Production, which has been delayed for a long time, finally opened Friday night with an enthusiastic response, but not without a bit of stagnation. Lee has even confronted one of her own friends who asked, “Wait … isn’t she a white woman?”
Yes, it was her. Rose Thompson Hovick was the real and dominant mother of Gypsy Rose Lee and Dainty June Hovick. And their inherent whiteness was a key weapon in how he managed to intimidate them into getting some stardom.
Lee is an inescapably proud black woman. “And I can’t interpret Rose as a white woman, because I’m not a white woman,” she said.
“I’m playing Rose the way I see her. And I see her as a bullying mother who wanted to be a star, and now she wants her son to be a star. Whether you’re red, white, black or blue, that could be any mother. “.
For much of the last decade, Lee has been known as “Denver’s first Lady of Song.” Now she’s divorced and that, she said, has made her a stronger woman and a better actor. “This experience has had a lot to do with who I am as an actor now, and it has really informed the character,” he said. “I love challenges and I feel like this one has stretched me a lot.”
When the audience left the Vintage Theater, Lee said, “More than anything, I hope my talent speaks for itself. I want people to believe that I could sing the role and play the role, and that they hired me for this. reason, regardless of my skin color “.
But part of the challenge for any actor to play any role, Lee said, is to get the audience to look beyond the actor they see coming in and finally get to see the character completely. This could mean that Vintage Theater offers a black actor (Camryn Nallah Torres) the rare opportunity to perform at Cinderella last January. But it also means suspending disbelief in areas that go beyond race, such as film audiences going to films with universally recognizable stars like Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X, Gary Busey as Buddy Holly, or Angela Bassett as Tina Turner. “Regardless of what you think will come in,” Lee said, “you left all those movies thinking,‘ My God, I just saw Malcolm X, Buddy Holly and Tina Turner. ’I want people to leave‘ Gypsy ’thinking who just saw ‘Rose’, not a black actor playing Rose ”.
But then again, if the audience leaves “Gypsy” thinking about some of the troubling contradictions between Lee’s race and the character he plays, better.
If the audience thinks, “Wait a minute: a black woman of the time couldn’t have even entered that theater, neither through the front door nor through the back,” better. If they realize, “Wait a minute. The black performers of the time were largely relegated to the Chitlin ‘circuit, degrading and racially segregated,” better. that all about? ”is a conversation we should all have, and if it were to see a black actor playing Rose what raises her, then, better.
What is often lost in conversations about color and casting is that narration itself is an invented artifice. Point. Each creative team can create the rules of their story as they see fit. Some protested when Lin-Manuel Miranda created a world in which color actors play the white founding fathers of the nation, without realizing it: In the world Miranda has created, Alexander Hamilton IS a character of color. George Washington IS a black character. Nor is it 1776. And guess what? The real Rose has been dead for 68 years. And when you get out of “Gypsy,” you’ll head out onto Colfax Avenue, not from a burlesque Wichita house.
And if you really want to be a lover of authenticity, here’s a little fact about Rose Thompson Hovick that you’ll never learn by watching “Gypsy”: she was a lesbian, maybe she was responsible for the deaths of three people, and she was tried for murder. The point?
“It would be great for people to keep in mind that the original title of this musical was‘ Gypsy: A Fable, ’” Cardell said. It’s theater. It’s all about making people believe.
In 2022, we should all appreciate the opportunity to see classic stories that have been portrayed in exactly the same way for decades in a new and different light. Especially a story that otherwise has no particular reason to be told in 2022.
It’s Rose’s turn. At this point in the history of local theater, it’s Mary Louise Lee’s turn.
“What we’re talking about is a new time and a new day of opportunity,” he said.