BWW Review: JUST LENA Weathers the Storm at Vincent Victoria Presents
JUST LENA is the latest project from Vincent Victoria currently running at the Midtown Arts Center. It is a heartfelt tribute to the entertainer that explores her career from the start as a chorus girl in The Cotton Club in the 30s up to her appearance on the television sitcom SANFORD AND SON in 1973. What makes the play so brilliant is it explores a universal question of "are you enough?" We see Lena struggle with not being black enough, not being seen as white enough, and not being any myriad of things slung at her in criticism throughout her career. It's about a woman coming to terms with who she is in an industry that asks you to be anything but yourself.
Vincent Victoria is a producer, playwright, and director who has been creating visions of black icons in entertainment throughout his career in Houston. He researches his subjects, and then translates their lives into "film like" plays that cut back and forth in time at a quick pace often with several actors playing the same person as a younger and older version. He brings something out of these historical pieces to educate his audience about where we are now in many different social issues. For this production he has brought no less than 22 thespians onto the stage to create JUST LENA. The conceit is we see Lena Horne preparing for her appearance on SANFORD AND SON, and during discussions with Redd Foxx and La Wanda Page she flashes back through the important parts of her life.
Two actresses take on the iconic Lena Horne with Damonica Renee playing an older version and Tenise Farria playing the younger. Both women are stunning, and Damonica has the right grandeur and grace to pull off Lena in the 70s. Tenise plays a wider eyed version of the character who has to evolve throughout the years. Both women capture something special, and they make the perfect duo to pull off this entire show. Damonica takes on the emotionally haunted version of Lena, while Tenise is the ghost of her youth that takes the blows that create the star. It's smart to have two versions since often actors have a tough time aging characters when asked to play through so many decades. It also allows time for costume changes, and gives the play the ability to work in flashbacks at the drop of a hat without missing a beat. Plus it plays to the two women's strengths as performers. Damonica can plumb the depths of regret and loss, while Tenise can be more happy-go-lucky and full of spunk.
Antonio Vines recreates comedian Redd Foxx, and he nails the voice so perfectly I would have believed Foxx was in the room if I closed my eyes. DeAndra Virgil Scott also excels at bringing to life La Wanda Page. Another stunning recreation comes from WyKesha King who is instantly recognizable as Hattie McDaniels even before speaking. King has star power, and it's great to see her return in this signature role she has done previously for the company. Tammy Brown plays Lena Horne's mother in a poignant part of the play, and she does so with conviction and power. One of the most impressive performances comes from Jasmine Renee Thomas who portrays Ethel Waters with such religious fervor that you may catch her spirit. The entire ensemble does an outstanding job swirling around the stage creating several worlds sometimes simultaneously throughout the night. Each one of them gets their "moment" as the scenes roll on, and each rise to the occasion when called for.
What I love most about the play is the struggle Lena Horne has to fit in to her respective groups personally and professionally. She's too white for her own community, too black for Hollywood, and exists in some strange limbo where she has to figure out how to navigate the world. It becomes how the audience relates to the icon, because who hasn't felt this pressure? Are you pretty enough? Are you wealthy enough? Are you loyal to your tribe? Are you true to your race? Do you fit in professionally? We struggle as humans to fit in and be enough at any given moment, and that's the lesson Lena Horne offered the world and herself. Even though she made history and became a champion of the Civil Rights movement, she struggled every step of the way with the identity created by her appearance and demeanor. She was an icon, but she was also a normal woman with doubts that plagued her every move. Also she was more natural than we ever expected, and this script by Vincent Victoria captures that aspect perfectly. He removes the whitewashing the world often gave to Lena in order to reveal more depth and complexity. Gone is the Southern veneer, and in its place is a woman who understands how and why she has to fight for her own community.
JUST LENA plays at the Midtown Arts Center at 3414 La Branch Street. Tickets are $25 a person, and can be acquired through the website at https://www.vincentvictoriapresents.com/ or by calling the box office at (281) 832-6380. The show only runs through Sunday July 7th.
Photo courtesy of Rudy Mui photography