Ella the Ungovernable – Ella Fitzgerald’s  Missing Year

Extensively chronicled, the life of Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) had a gap which “The First Lady of Song'” avoided addressing. This was somewhat corrected by Nina Bernstein’s New York Times article, Ward of the State; The Gap in Ella Fitzgerald’s Life. The piece described Fitzgerald’s incarceration and escape from The New York Training School for Girls in Hudson, New York, a reformatory by any other name. Hudson based journalist/playwright David McDonald found himself inspired.

The play shows 15 year-old Ella, here with the poise and vocabulary of a girl of 20, coping with prison “law” (that which inmates establish), abusive guards, and an oblivious matron. Looking back on her past from a cell, she sometimes steps into history. (The construct works.) McDonald’s plausible intention is to show how this parentheses contributed to shaping the vocalist’s life. He does so with verisimilitude (the appearance of) often eschewing accuracy.

Joe Armando Grosso as Joseph, boyfriend of Ella’s mother

Ella’s unmarried parents split when she was a toddler. Her mom, Temperance/Tempie moved from Virginia to Yonkers where she cohabited with Joseph Da Silva. Ella sang in a church choir, imitated her favorite singers and took piano lessons, but aspired to be a dancer. She took trips to the city to check out the latest steps at dance halls. When the teenager was 15, Tempie died in a car crash leaving her with Da Silva, considered by most biographers to have been abusive.

Geneva Turner (Social Worker), Simone Black (Aunt Edna)

An aunt then took the girl into her Harlem home. It was she who called her charge “ungovernable.” In the play, her gesture is mercenary. Other articles deny financial support existed. McDonald conjectures that her aunt was an alcoholic, forcing her to extreme house chores and scrounging food out of garbage cans. (I find not a shred of this in a dozen biographical articles.) Excelling at school up till then, Ella dropped out, ran numbers for her aunt’s mafia affiliated racket, and worked as look-out for a bordello.

When the authorities caught up with her, she was sent to The Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, then transferred upstate where a judge sentenced the girls from three to five years. Black girls were housed mainly in two segregated cottages, a practice that persisted until the late 1940s. We get a sense of inmates’ trust issues and behavior – though articulation seems too mature. A sympathetic psychologist helps Ella into the privileged choir. In fact, the choir was all white. Segregation is a large part of the icon’s life experience. Why avoid the issue?

Left: Christian Neal as Ella Fitzgerald, Right: Tyra Hughes as Alice, Ella’s best friend at New York State Training School for Girls

McDonald imagines a prison docto r- whose house she and others clean – discovering abuse and overuse of solitary confinement at the reformatory, and facilitating Ella’s escape (with her cell mate Alice). The girls are housed by Dr. M. E. Ross, a founder of the NAACP. It’s he and his wife who encourage her to try out at The Apollo Theater.

In reality, the teenager engineered her own illegal exit, living and busking on the streets, another victim of The Great Depression. Even a glance at this would’ve  made good theater. Holding fast to battered dreams, Ella entered a lottery for one of the Apollo’s first talent contests. It was her intention to dance, but a tap act preceded and she switched to vocals at the last minute.

Choirmaster rehearses singers. Left: Huston Pigford. Right: Ebony Nixon, Tezha Davis, Gabrielle Farley, Christian Neal, Autumn McCree, Kiara Joseph

The finale number tonight is “A Tisket, A Tasket,” a song created from the nursery rhyme by Fitzgerald and Van Alexander four years later. On the Apollo stage, the 17 year vocalist sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection” (Pinky Tomlin/Jimmie Grier). Her prize included a week’s run at the theater, but because of disheveled appearance, she never received the offer. In Ungovernable she’s cleaned up and looking swell.

Why play fast and loose with facts that would mostly enhance dramatic narrative? Where’s the street language of girls 12 to 16 convicted of juvenile delinquency? Cell mate Alice (Tyra Hughes) sings an original, tuneless and unnecessary song. The piece is overstuffed with characters; it’s chopped up into too many very short scenes. This slice of Ella’s life could’ve been intriguing. With some editing and rewriting, perhaps…

It’s easy to see why Christian Neal was cast as Ella. She both resembles Fitzgerald and has real vocal talent. Alas, the actor uses repetitive stock facial expressions. There’s awareness, but it’s not been well directed. Michele Baldwin’s Tempie, Joe Armando Grosso’s Joseph Da Silva, Simone Black’s Aunt Edna (a bit over the top), and Sheldon Young as psychologist Dr. Morena are all solid. Ebony Nixon’s Althea, a volatile inmate lands well. Playing the bordello owner, Shadenia Davis chews scenery right into the audience.

Co-directors David McDonald and Michele Baldwin keep the show moving as well as making it clear when and where we are. Ominous atmosphere is created without depicting violence. The pair do less well with characterization. A call out is due to to sound designer Dave Swanson whose atmospheric backgrounds enhance without distracting and to Michele Baldwin for costumes – undoubtedly on a budget.

Photos by Jonathan Slaff
Opening Christian Neal as Ella Fitzgerald

Ella the Ungovernable by David McDonald
Directed by
Theater for the New City  
1455 First Avenue at 10th Street

About Alix Cohen (1793 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.