BWW Interviews: I WISH YOU LOVE Actor Dennis Spears Talks the Mystique of Nat 'King' Cole
I like to think of myself as too grown to go weak in the knees when a male singer calls me "girl." But I'll have to make an exception for Nat "King" Cole. When he looks into the camera with that trademark grin and begins to sing (to me*), for the duration of the song at least, everything in the world is right.
This is part of his charm. It's also part of what makes him so frustrating. Practically nothing was right in his world. For his hard work and talent, he was treated to segregated concert halls, burning crosses and slurs. We know what he did do. We know what he didn't do.** We know Kimye's wedding menu. But we don't know Nat "King" Cole. This is what I WISH YOU LOVE seeks. To push through the mystique of this enigmatic performer to discover the flesh and blood underneath. I had the privilege of speaking with actor Dennis Spears, Mr. Cole himself.
BWW: Some might not be familiar with the production. Please tell us a little more about it.
Dennis Spears: I WISH YOU LOVE deals with Nat "King" Cole's television show. It's set in 1957 so you get a peek at his struggle to deal with the racist elements of that time. It really, really shows a lot of what America was dealing with at that time and the racism Nat had to deal with.
BWW: How do you reconcile that with Nat "King" Cole's squeaky clean image?
Dennis Spears: That's the interesting thing, I think, about the way the show is directed and the way it's presented. Because you get to see his nice squeaky clean image and the smoothness of Nat "King" Cole juxtaposed with what was going on in the country. You get to see him on the air actually performing the show and seeing what they wanted you to see at the time. But also there's some other images there during the run of the show such as the race riots, the hoses being turned on people of color. It's a wonderful, very smart use of these technical elements to get that message out.
BWW: You were also involved with the Penumbra Production in Minnesota. Can you talk about the
differences between the two productions?
Dennis Spears: The difference is the cast. Different casts will bring you different energies. Both casts were great. This cast is just excellent. There's just a freshness that you're able to find as an actor with a new cast. It keeps it new.
BWW: Why should Houstonians come to see this play?
Dennis Spears: It's important because Nat King Cole did so much so that artists like myself can do what we do today. But it also speaks to the element of racism. We need to continue having conversations regarding that so we can eradicate it. It's sad to me that we're still dealing with that element in this country. Nat "King" Cole chose to deal with it with love. That is why the show, I think, is called I WISH YOU LOVE. Because that's the way he chose to deal with it.
BWW: How did you prepare for the role? Nat "King" Cole is a legendary performer. Was it daunting for you as a performer?
Dennis Spears: I started paying tribute to Nat "King" Cole in 1991 in a cabaret that I started. And a lot of people commented on the similarities vocally and physically. Later on, I approached Lou Bellamy and told him that, at some point in my life, I would really love to go on stage as an actor and portray Nat "King" Cole. Lou advised me to work on my acting chops. Not only did he tell me to do that, he gave me the work. He cast me in shows to help me develop those chops.
Also, as a jazz singer, I have listened to Nat "King" Cole's music for years. The first time I heard Nat "King" Cole's music, I was probably six or seven years old. My grandparents raised me in Louisiana and, growing up, we couldn't listen to secular music in our home. But at Christmas, we could listen to Nat "King" Cole's "The Christmas Song."
I used him as a template for who I was to become as a jazz singer. I also watched footage of his televisions shows. What I didn't want to do was mimic him or make him caricaturish. I think what we tried to do in this show is bring the essence of Nat "King" Cole.
BWW: Seems like it took a lifetime to prepare for this role.
Dennis Spears: It's the role of a lifetime to me. It really is. I'm just so honored to pay tribute to a man that I've admired for years.
BWW: How can others find out more about Nat "King" Cole?
Dennis Spears: With the internet and social media, I think you can find out anything about anybody. The best way to do it is to go and Youtube some of his songs and his performances. There's a lot out there. There's a whole catalog of songs that Nat "King" Cole has recorded in every language. Take a look at "Non Dimenticar," which is one of the songs he recorded in Italian.
In addition to the information I found online, I have the biography "Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole."
BWW: What is your favorite Nat "King" Cole song? Album? Performance?
I love, love, love "The Christmas Song" and "The Magic of Christmas" album because it was the first I heard. My favorite song of Nat "King" Cole's, I perform it in the show, is "I Keep Going Back to Joe's." There's a tie, I'm lying! There's another one I do in the show. Its called "Nature Boy."
BWW: Your favorite performance?
Dennis Spears: I don't know that I can say. Let's see. I love his performance with Sammy Davis, Jr. on his television show.
And I love his performance in Cat Ballou. That was right before he died.
BWW: Do you have any advice for aspiring vocal performers and actors?
Dennis Spears: I would say, really follow your heart. Be respectful of the music. One of the lessons I've learned in working with Nat "King" Cole is to be a stickler for lyric articulation in songs. And be passionate about songs. Every song is not meant for every performer. So be very careful about the songs that you select. Make sure it's something that speaks to your heart.
BWW: Do you have any advice for those seeking to make a career in theatre?
Dennis Spears: Study, study, study. The more you study, the stronger you are as an artist.
* I'm unforgettable, not you.
** When asked about how he felt about being attacked on stage by white supremacists, Nat replied "I can't understand it. I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me? I'd just like to forget about the whole thing." Needless to say, this statement did not go over well with civil rights activists.
The Ensemble Theatre production of I WISH YOU LOVE runs June 26 - July 27 on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m, Fridays at 8:00 p.m, Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m, and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. There will be a command performance on Sunday, July 27 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets ($28-$55), please visit www.EnsembleHouston.com or call 713-520-0055.