A play with ties to the Hudson Valley that opened to packed crowds this winter will come back via Zoom Thursday night to keep interest alive.
Things were looking good for “Ella the Ungovernable” back in February: the new play by Hudson journalist David McDonald opened with two sold-out performances at the Valatie Community Theatre, and praise for the production raised hopes of a tour around the Capital Region and an eventual off-Broadway run with Theater for the New City in Manhattan.
Then came COVID-19 — and like most of the season’s best-laid plans, the tour went awry. But while theatres remain unlikely to open until later this summer at the earliest, McDonald says TNC’s Executive Artistic Director Crystal Field has been scheduling online readings ever since the pandemic took hold.
“And I looked at a few of these plays and I’m like, 'Hm, I wonder if we could at least do that while we’re all sort of waiting for things to sort out?'" says McDonald. "So I contacted Cyrstal and said, ‘Would you be interested in sort of moving our schedule up a little bit?’ And she said, ‘Sure.’”
McDonald says viewers will be able to tune in live on YouTube and the TNC website.
The show centers on legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald’s incarceration at Hudson’s Training School for Girls in 1933. McDonald is quick to note the story is historical fiction - because Fitzgerald famously refused to talk about her past, little is actually known about her time there. From 1904 to 1975, the facility operated as a reform school for girls 12 to 16 - some of whom were convicted of delinquency crimes, like truancy, but many of whom were simply discarded by private foster care agencies and orphanages. A 1996 New York Times article (upon which McDonald based most of his research) says Fitzgerald arrived around age 16, after running numbers for a gambling ring and fleeing an orphanage in New York City. McDonald says the girls at Hudson’s Training School faced dire conditions. The school was highly segregated, and black students were frequently beaten, abused, and crammed into the campus’ most dilapidated buildings.
The play’s hope, he says, lies in Fitzgerald’s ability to withstand it all. With the help of a friend, Fitzgerald escaped from Hudson, and lands in the Apollo Theater talent contest, destined to launch her career.
“Ella had wanted to be a dancer, so she didn’t even want to sing - but her best friend danced before her. So Ella was faced with this decision when she got on stage. She was called on stage, and she decided to sing a song," McDonald explains. "And orchestra leader Chick Webb happened to be sitting in the audience. Chick signed her, and the funniest thing was that she eventually was paroled by the state of the New York to the Chick Webb orchestra.”
McDonald says Fitzgerald and Webb scored their first hit, “A Tisket A Tasket” soon after, and the play includes a number of spirituals and songs. McDonald admits navigating Zoom’s parameters has been tricky for the production: the normal 16-person cast has been reduced to 12, and actors must be careful to avoid talking or singing over one another, so as to avoid quirks in the platform’s audio. But it’s also allowed McDonald to experiment, swapping out the original, teenage cast for professional actors across the country.
The play’s “Ella,” actress Alexis Ward, is ecstatic to be taking on what she says is her “dream role” from Chicago - even if the circumstances are different from what she imagined.
"[It's difficult] staying within the perimeters in which you are given, and making sure it reads. [Also] having to make your presence even bigger through Zoom and communicating, especially with the people you're connecting with as your opposite in the scene," Ward notes. "That's probably the hardest thing - making sure everything reads."
McDonald says the rest of the cast hails from Chatham and Hudson to larger cities like New York City, Princeton, and Fort Worth. WGXC’s Philip Grant is the only returning member from the February production, resuming his role as the Apollo's master of ceremonies.
McDonald says the whole thing came together in a matter of weeks, a feat that seems to have surprised both him and the cast. McDonald says part of his goal in writing his first play was simply proving that he could do it – but he also says many of the struggles Fitzgerald faced as a person of color are still prevalent in American society today. He hopes to shed light and a little bit of hope.
“Ultimately my goal was to galvanize my fellow Americans to try to do a piece of artwork that really is a call to action, and a call to never give up," he notes. "Because it’s always that time [when] you’ve just taken so much and you’re ready to stop - and that’s always the time that things change.”