Guest Author - Donna Ledbetter
From a thesis production actress Rosalind "Roz" White wrote while a graduate student at Howard University, the smash hit musical Pearl Bailey...By Request was born. Her production was originally titled The Woman I Am, and it highlighted the lives of White's primary musical influences. In the end, White selected Pearl Bailey as one six influences—-from a list including legends by the likes of Sarah Vaughn, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith—-upon which to focus a production.
“The intent of the original play,” White says, “was to show audiences what I believed I had become as a result of my influences. Pearl Bailey was the woman I connected with the most.”
White shares a birthday with Bailey. The women also share the gospel influences of Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, two legendary vocalists of eras gone by.
Such influence also explains why audiences will find that White’s performance in Pearl Bailey…By Request doesn’t highlight White’s own vocal style and range. There is an expressive quality missing from White’s performance that shows she is holding something back.
“To prepare for my role, I looked through pictures and footage of Bailey performing to capture the cadence and tones of her voice,” White says. “When I’m performing, I try not to take away the authenticity of the sound—bending notes, sustaining notes, using a different approach.”
Yet White is capable of producing that dynamic. Prior to relocating to Washington, DC, after the events of Hurricane Katrina, White spent three years in New Orleans, making a reality the high hopes that so many others have of living and performing as artists successfully.
“It was like my dream job,” White says. “I sang in several bands and venues on Bourbon Street. That was unheard of. Such venues were usually cast with people having more experience.
“I had to keep current, stay prompt, and make myself indispensable to the venue owners. That was one of the biggest lessons I learned—always give a great show.”
White does her best to do just that each night of her performance. Woven into her cabaret-style musical are moments of levity, banter, and wit that both engage and sustain the audience. White thrives on stage, and her experience in New Orleans shows.
“New Orleans is a very crowd-motivated venue. The crowd often likes to get up on stage. When performing I have to be sensitive to the audience, knowing if they’re drinking more, dancing more, or laughing more than usual,” White says.
She uses the same cues when interacting with audiences in performance of Pearl Bailey…By Request. A good deal of the production is improvisation, a technique Bailey also used often on many of her recordings.
Those unfamiliar with Bailey will find in White’s performance a true rendition of Bailey’s classic style. White also hopes to reintroduce Bailey “to people who don’t know her and to bring new memories to today’s generation.”
To read more about Pearl Bailey...By Request, read my review article on the musical.