Thursday, August 4, 2011

Nat King Cole: A play and a biography

Earlier this year, in May, I saw the play I Wish You Love at the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. Written by Dominic Taylor, directed by Lou Bellamy, it portrays the very brief period—from November 1956 until December 1957—when Nat King Cole tried to make it on television.

Cole was by then an international jazz and pop star with many hits  ("Nature Boy," "Mona Lisa," "Unforgettable," "Too Young," "The Christmas Song," to name a few), a family, and a mansion in an old-money white neighborhood in Los Angeles, where he had lived (when he wasn't on the road) since 1948.  He had sold millions of records and earned millions of dollars for his label, Capitol.

But America wasn't ready for a black person with his own variety show, even if Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tony Bennett showed up to perform. NBC funded it, then bounced it around the schedule. No national companies would sponsor it. "For 13 months," Cole later wrote, "I was the Jackie Robinson of television. After a trail-blazing year that shattered all the old bug-a-boos about Negroes on TV, I found myself standing there with the bat on my shoulder. The men who dictate what Americans see and hear didn't want to play ball."

Word-of-mouth about I Wish You Love was strong, and the entire month-long run sold out. From St. Paul, it traveled to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC (the first Penumbra play ever to be performed there) and then to Hartford Stage in Connecticut. The Penumbra has found room in its late fall schedule to bring it back for another two weeks, from November 18-December 4. Between now and then, I plan to interview Dennis Spears, who played the lead.

I saw Spears briefly at the Dakota in March, after a Moore by Four performance (he's been part of that vocal group for years), and he told me a little about the play. It was not, he insisted, a musical (although there's a lot of music in it—20 songs, maybe a few too many IMHO). It was serious, he said. It dealt with heavy issues—racism, prejudice, violence. For Spears, this was the role of a lifetime, but it was also very hard. He was eager, he was proud, and he was worried about pulling it off.

I've seen Spears perform many times, as a vocalist and as an actor (he has been in several plays at the Penumbra over the years). As I watched I Wish You Love, it was fascinating to see him inhabit his character, working his body, face, and voice to look and sound like Cole. One DC reviewer complained that he (and the other actors who portrayed Cole's guitarist and bass player) weren't really playing their instruments. To quote: "It's very karoake." Mean and unfair. Spears sang every song, something few actors could do.

What I found especially riveting was how Spears gathered what Cole must have been feeling—growing disappointment, frustration, disbelief, and rage—slowly, bit by bit, insult by insult, until he seemed cloaked in darkness. His smile never lost any of its wattage, but it became less of a smile, more of a grimace. He was playing two parts at once, a public figure and a private man. Occasionally, he let the latter show through, and when it did, it glowed like lava.

Wanting to know more about Cole before speaking to Spears, I've just read Leslie Gourse's biography, Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole. It's an older book, first published in 1991, but a good one, tracing Cole's life from around age 4 until his death from lung cancer in 1965, when he was 45 years old.

Gourse writes with warmth, authority, and restraint. We learn that life on the road had its temptations, that the ladies loved Cole, that his first marriage ended in divorce and his second was troubled, but Gourse is not about digging up dirt, which is both quaint and refreshing. (She never names Gunilla Hutton, the young Swedish dancer with whom Cole was involved before he was hospitalized, though she does mention a "pretty, delicate-looking, soft-spoken, mild-mannered dancer.") The book paints a crisply detailed picture of Cole's rise to fame, the people he performed with, his life as an entertainer, and the songs he sang.

Gourse spends one short chapter, six pages, on the story of what she calls Cole's "chops-breaking ground-breaking on television." We glimpse the lava in just one anecdote. When a cosmetics company tells Cole that Negroes can't sell lipsticks, Cole says, "What do they think we use? Chalk? Congo paint? And what about corporations like the telephone company? A man sees a Negro on a television show. What's he going to do—call up the telephone company and tell them to take out the phone?"

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