BWW Review: Kennedy Davenport Puts Emotion on Display in Cathartic THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO KENNEDY DAVENPORT
"There's nothing formal about this but this dress."
Kennedy Davenport's aside, just several minutes into her August 23 performance of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO KENNEDY DAVENPORT at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, couldn't have been truer. And, to put it in RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE speak, that informality represented both the top and the bottom of the performance--- though, rest assured, nobody was in danger of elimination.
The show began with Davenport offstage, telling the crowd she wanted to take them on a journey. And while it was fitting to start off THE GOSPEL with Kennedy as the Voice of God (no sacrilege intended), it went on so long it was impossible not to wonder if there was a wardrobe snafu occurring in the dressing room. But the number itself, a characteristically plaintive cover of "The Way We Were" (Alan & Marilyn Bergman/Marvin Hamlisch) accompanied by Kendoll Brinkley Brown on piano, was sensational.
From there, Davenport journeyed through her life in Texas before DRAG RACE, from her first time singing to her first love and first heartbreak, in the hopes of giving the audience an understanding not just of her drag persona but of Reuben Asberry Jr., as well. Beyond the ordinary trials of growing up, she was so much more vulnerable, getting candid about attempting suicide and getting deep into drugs.
Aside from the opening number, a large percentage of the numbers were, in fact, gospel songs, from Jill Scott's "Hear My Call" (Scott/JR Hutson) to "My Tribute (To God Be The Glory)" (Andraé Crouch). And those numbers dovetailed beautifully with Davenport's experiences of turning to religion when the world became too much.
Yet, for as forthright as she could be, THE GOSPEL was rarely straightforward. Oftentimes, those narrative detours added a nice texture to the show. Referencing the first time she "experienced" cocaine and ecstasy, she then admitted, "Not 'experienced,' I was doing the shit." Another time, when an audience member laughed at her striving for "greatness," she spontaneously lobbed out her ALL STARS 3 catchphrase, "Fuck my drag." (Because, as she noted, she's a "cursing Christian.")
Even the non-gospel selections were primarily ballads, like the opening number and Davenport's cover of Whitney Houston's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," though guiding the audience to shoop-shoop along helped keep that performance on the lighter side.
Crediting a literal divine intervention for getting away from drugs, Davenport opened up about her time in the Navy and getting out of an abusive relationship. She concluded that period in her life by singing Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" (Holiday/Arthur Herzog, Jr.), a performance that was gentle without losing any poignance.
There were the times when Davenport's deviations got the best of her. Even with the script in front of her, every now and again she'd wind up discussing something like her grade on an English paper and have to find her place. "They put me on at 7:00 knowing I talk too much," she joked at one point. While never not entertaining, the asides could throw the pacing out of whack, and the encore was more like a whole extra act, featuring multiple songs and an update on the current chapter in her life.
By the end of the show, it was clear that discussing these painful moments was still an emotional act for her, particularly at the tail-end, when Asberry Jr. opened up about reuniting with his mother and sister under one roof in recent years.
During the closing number that followed, a stripped-down version of her house number, "Moving Up" (Dresia Dee/Enrique Fann/Kendoll Brinkley Brown/Kennedy Davenport), Davenport began to break down in tears. In a warm display of generosity, when she got too choked up to continue, Brinkley Brown took over for her, singing until she could take back the mantle. Davenport recovered in time to flip the tack on a dime into the exuberant dance number it was always meant to be hit some Sylvester-esque high notes to boot.
After the emotional odyssey the audience had just experienced, it was genuinely cathartic to witness Davenport finally see the light. On the whole, she had unlimited reserves of charisma and demonstrated a keen eye for pairing song and stories, though she could stand to let the songs do just a bit more of the talking. Considering that was primarily the result of an overstuffed script---particularly given her clear affinity for riffing---perhaps THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO KENNEDY DAVENPORT would simply be better split into two testaments.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.