It’s so nice to feel you hold me again
No, it doesn’t matter where you have been
My heart welcomes you back home again
“Old Friend,” Thom Bell, Linda Creed
Variety once described Phyllis Hyman’s voice as “sultry, sassy, and vocally surprising.” It was that voice that reached out to Jacqueline B. Arnold in songs like “Old Friend.” “Originally, her voice [drew me in],” Arnold explained. “Her haunted sounds. She always made me wonder what she was feeling when she recorded all these songs.”
When Arnold got older, she sought out more information about Hyman. “Listening and understanding the lyrics…peaked my curiosity about a person whose biggest wish was just to be loved,” she said. Hyman appeared in Sophisticated Ladies, a musical based on the music of Duke Ellington, which ran on Broadway from 1981 to 1983. She earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. Wider recognition, however, punctuated by a series of lost opportunities, eluded her. On June 30, 1995, Hyman committed suicide, hours before she was to perform at the Apollo Theater. On July 6, a week later, she would have turned 46.
Jacqueline B. Arnold
Now, Arnold is paying tribute to the singer, songwriter, and actress in An Evening with Phyllis Hyman, at New York’s Actors’ Temple Theatre, with six performances. (See the website for dates, times, and to purchase tickets.) Arnold brings her own considerable talents to this one-woman show. She has appeared in Broadway’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and in several National tours: Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray, and Joanne Jefferson in Rent. She also had the privilege to tour with Bette Midler as a Harlette. Most recently, she created the role of Martha Wash in Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical.
Hyman’s story is a poignant one. She reportedly struggled with drug abuse and bipolar disorder. “Her mental illness really drew me to her in my adult years because it hit close to home,” said Arnold. “Like many of us, I know many people who suffer from mental illness. I believe telling her story on a public platform will bring even more awareness and hopefully will start a discussion within a community, specifically [among] the African American females who tend to not talk about it. We are told, `you will be ok’ or `suck it up’ or we don’t talk about it at all because we are embarrassed. I believe it is an important conversation to have, it can literally be life saving.”
As an artist, Arnold is devoted to making positive change through the arts, especially working with young people to help them grow into healthy and happy adults. She has been an instructor, counselor, and mentor to youth, specializing in those with depression and self-esteem issues. “I love their innocence and thirst for knowledge,” she said. “It is so fun to make a difference in a young person’s life through art. Building confidence or polishing a skill they have is so rewarding. It truly brings me joy to see kids dancing and singing.”
To prepare for her role as Hyman, Arnold did her research, reading Jason A. Michael’s Strength of a Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story. “It was a great chronological resource for facts, meaning it was a great place to start,” she said. “Luckily, we live in an age of information at our finger tips. Being able to watch footage of her live performances, interviews, and get to see her facial expressions and hear her voice really helped. I also was given the chance to speak to people who knew her and got to hear stories first hand of who she really was.”
Jacqueline, center, with the cast. Also pictured are producer Sheryl Lee Ralph (bottom row, left) and the show’s creators Kendrell Bowman and Anthony Wayne (bottom row, right).
Included in the show are a collection of Hyman’s biggest hits, those that were said to be her favorites and most memorable. “Funny enough I have always had a deeper toned voice, even when I was young, which made it natural to play someone with those same tones,” Arnold said. “I have always connected to people with similar voices and loved singing their songs, Phyllis Hyman, Anita Baker, etc. The research and learning about who she really was is enabling me to channel her and meld her with my talents.”
Last year marked 20 years since Hyman died. Her recordings are still available and sought out by a loyal base of fans. Her videos on YouTube have millions of hits. But, according to Arnold, Hyman’s legacy is about more than just music. “I believe a legacy is what people would want to leave behind, or what people would want to be said about them,” Arnold reflected. “Her biggest message is even if you appear to have it all, you could still be alone and have nothing, not even yourself. I can only imagine she would want more for those who loved her, both those who knew her and those who did not, her fans. I hope her legacy and memory shines a light on mental and emotional illness.”
Arnold’s wish is that audiences will not only enjoy An Evening with Phyllis Hyman, but be inspired. “As a performer, I always hope they have been thoroughly entertained,” she said. “I always say there is a bonus if you leave with wanting to have a discussion about what you watched. For this show, wanting to talk about being in love, out of love, mental illness or being alone. As long as real conversations are happening, I feel that I have done my job.”
Top photo: Jacqueline B. Arnold-as Phyllis Hyman in An Evening with Phyllis Hyman. Photo Credit: Iconic.jpg.
Credit for other photos: Jeremy Daniel