Dinah Washington Drama Shows What a Difference 40 Years Makes

Dinah Washington Drama Shows What a Difference 40 Years Makes Dinah Was, an unassuming "musical biography" of the gutsy jazz/blues singer Dinah Washington that opened to raves at the WPA Theatre in March, has found a new home at Off-Broadway's newest theatre, The Gramercy.

An unassuming show perhaps, but powerful. If Dinah Washington -- born Ruth Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama -- could dazzle the nation and break to the top of the all-white 1950's pop charts with her renditions of "Come Rain or Come Shine," "I Don't Hurt Any More," and "What a Difference a Day Makes," so, too, will Yvette Freeman blow you away as the Dinah of Dinah Was. No less remarkable is co-star Adriane Lenox in four roles, one of them as Washington's stoic, skeptical mother.

Dinah is not so stoic. When we first lay eyes on her, she (a large woman in a white fur coat) has planted herself on her suitcase smack in the middle of the lobby of the Sahara Hotel, the Las Vegas establishment where she will be headlining onstage that night -- but where, now, at this moment, the manager is doing his unctuous, ugly best to get her the hell off that suitcase and out of that lobby and into her accommodations out back in the trailers next to the dog act, where she belongs. Because, unlike her fur coat, she's the wrong color.
Yvette is:  Yvette Freeman as blues great Dinah Washington
Yvette is: Yvette Freeman as blues great Dinah Washington (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Dinah Was, an unassuming "musical biography" of the gutsy jazz/blues singer Dinah Washington that opened to raves at the WPA Theatre in March, has found a new home at Off-Broadway's newest theatre, The Gramercy.

An unassuming show perhaps, but powerful. If Dinah Washington -- born Ruth Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama -- could dazzle the nation and break to the top of the all-white 1950's pop charts with her renditions of "Come Rain or Come Shine," "I Don't Hurt Any More," and "What a Difference a Day Makes," so, too, will Yvette Freeman blow you away as the Dinah of Dinah Was. No less remarkable is co-star Adriane Lenox in four roles, one of them as Washington's stoic, skeptical mother.

Dinah is not so stoic. When we first lay eyes on her, she (a large woman in a white fur coat) has planted herself on her suitcase smack in the middle of the lobby of the Sahara Hotel, the Las Vegas establishment where she will be headlining onstage that night -- but where, now, at this moment, the manager is doing his unctuous, ugly best to get her the hell off that suitcase and out of that lobby and into her accommodations out back in the trailers next to the dog act, where she belongs. Because, unlike her fur coat, she's the wrong color.

That was 1959 -- the same year that Billie Holiday, Dinah's idol, died chained by cops to a hospital bed in Metropolitan Hospital, New York City. Any progress since then?

"Oh yes," says Yvette Freeman. "It's changed. I can do this play."

"Oh yes," says Adriane Lenox. "Don't tell Bill Cosby he can't have a room in a hotel. He'll buy the hotel."

Yvette Freeman -- who may be more widely known as Evelyn Smalley, the office manager of TV's "Working," and as nurse Haleh Adams of TV's "E.R." -- was born, well, a certain number of years ago in Chester, Pa., and grew up in Wilmington, Del. Adriane Lenox -- "You'll have to guess my birthday also" -- was born and raised in Memphis, Tenn. The two women have known one another since the national tour of Ain't Misbehavin', the Tony-winning knockout musical from the Fats Waller portfolio. It was while that production was in Chicago in the early 1980s that people started telling Yvette Freeman she looked like Dinah Washington. "So I began doing research on her, at the Schomburg Collection in Harlem and elsewhere." The research included catching a glimpse of Washington on Bert Stern's memorable 1950's Newport Jazz Festival documentary, Jazz on a Summer's Day. Back in March, one wonders, did either actress expect anything like this?

"Well, it's what we were hoping for," says Lenox. "And hey, Yvette and I both got Obie Awards."

"It's been a dream," says Yvette Freeman. "My dream -- that came true. To do it in a larger house, in New York." The other day, she said, a woman who'd known Dinah Washington came to the show. She cried all the way through it. I'm having lunch with her next week."

Dinah is.

-- By Harry Haun