When Big Mama Thornton (Azusa Sheshe Dance ) hauls herself off the floor, takes a swig of whiskey from the bottle rolling beside her and launches into “Bumblebee Blues,” hair will stand up on your arms. We’re talking about gale force, gut driven commitment here, every note erupting as if no other choice existed.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1926 –1984) was a self-taught (vocals, drums, harmonica) singer/songwriter who broke out in a genre dominated by male R & B singers. A large, hard drinking, gay woman (with a penchant for men’s clothes), her gravelly, gospel-influenced sound and authoritative presence kept the performer from cotton fields that might’ve signified her life.
Hits like 1952’s “Hound Dog,” popularized by Elvis Presley three years later (“in come these two white cats lookin’ like they still drinkin’ from they mama’s titties” describes songwriters Lieber and Stoller) and her own “Ball ‘n Chain,” made famous by Janis Joplin, crossed over into rock and roll making Thornton widely popular after years of “Chitlin Circuit“ hardscrabble. (These were venues at which it was safe and acceptable for African American artists to perform during the era of racial segregation in the United States.) The artist died at 57 of heart and liver disorders due to lifelong alcohol abuse.
With the help of a super band, memorable vocals, and sketched autobiography, we’re led through Thornton’s life. Adolescent Willie Mae quit school and got a job cleaning a juke joint in order to support six brothers and sisters. Watching singers “shakin’ and shoutin,” she waited impatiently until someone got too drunk to go on.
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (Jimmy Cox) finds her seething and strutting. Hands punctuate mid air. Dance literally bends with the force of ejecting a deeply felt vocal. Every part of her moves. “Singin’ came easy, but livin’ off singin’, that’s another story. I had to fight for what I have.” The heroine is watchful, habitually suspicious. She exudes pride, determination, and a barely veiled temper.
Bessie Smith’s sister got Thornton her first gig traveling through the south. The second found her sharing a stage with Little Richard and Jimmy Scott. “Workin’ with these cats and not getting paid made you wanna hit somebody…I’ve had to crack a couple a heads, pulled out my 38 pistol and did some shootin’.”
Seven years later, she moved to Texas and stayed put. For perhaps the first time, people come out to see her. B.B. King’s “Rock Me, Baby” (all night long) is joyful and flirty. Several times during this show, the actress conscripts an audience member to dance with her. As Thornton, she appears palpably appreciative/seductive. No convincing is needed.
In Manhattan that Frank Schiffman, manager of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, christened Willie Mae Big Mama Thornton. She was six feet tall and 300 pounds but the force of her personality and acoustic vocals provided as much reason as appearance. “I don’t take no shit and I sing my own goddamn way,” the character snaps. Our audience spontaneously claps time with “They Call Me Big Mama.” Dance leans into several faces with a mischievous expression. No one recoils. She’s charming.
We hear, in part, vivid arrangements of the iconic “Hound Dog” and “Ball n’ Chain,” a dark, honeyed “Summertime” (George Gershwin/DuBose Heyward), the wisecracking “Laugh, Laugh, Laugh” (Big Mama Thornton), and Son House’s “Walkin’ Blues” which turns out to be perfect stripper music. The vocalist testifies here. She mops her forehead and upper chest unspooling lyrics, whipping them back like a lasso. One arm swings the superfluous mike. Guitar music picks, slides, swings; resonates.
As alcohol intake increases, people around her object. “I loves my damn drink, its damn dope that’s the devil,” she says eyes bugging out then narrowing. “Personal preferences” are also condemned. Though subtly handled by pointedly flirting with women in the audience, something about a relationship and/or being closeted would enrich. Later, examples of her dealing with segregation would also have added color.
Thornton complains about being forced to wear a dress. She records with little or no remuneration. Eventually, there are major festivals. On stage, Dance smiles, hugs, nuzzles a volunteer on her lap. I give you everythin’ I got… Piano ripples high, keys are slapped, a fist runs down them. Earthy gospel follows. It’s a helluva ride.
Over and above script omissions, events and reactions are recognized. Vernacular sounds right. Thornton’s trajectory is clear as are issues, consequences, and pleasures. Absence of the fourth wall works well. Interspersing song and dialogue is aided by deft underscoring.
Azusa Sheshe Dance is focused. She connects with an audience like a pro. (A free for all, take-to-the-floor epilogue is crowded with gleefully dancing participants.) Accent and physical movement are spot-on. Emotions are infectious. Attitude rings true.
Director Christine Schisano reflects Thornton’s feisty spirit with skill. Embodiment is pithy and buoyant. Pacing is excellent. Huzzah to choreography by Mark Drum!
Costumes by Brenda Schwab are picture perfect but for sneakers as footwear.
This is a worthy piece that asks a few changes to be as successful as its musical talent.
Photos: Frank Pate Photography
In its 9th year, United Solo, the world’s largest solo festival, presents over 130 local and international productions including storytelling, dance, puppetry, multimedia, improv, standup, magic, music, and drama over the course of ten stimulating, entertaining weeks. A fascinating, affordable way to see a cornucopia of theater. Recommended.
United Solo presents
Houn’ Dawg: Life and Times of “Big Mama” Thornton
Featuring Azusa Sheshe Dance
Written by Azusa Sheshe Dance and Marty L. Bryant
Directed by Christine Schisano
Music Arrangements- Jealous Fates. The Band: Adam Jacobs-Guitar, Dan Schnapp-Keyboard, Alex Aitken-Drums, Robert Buckley-Bass
410 West 42nd Street