ELLA THE UNGOVERNABLE By David McDonald To Be Presented By Theater for the New City This June

Theater for the New City (TNC) will present the play's NYC debut June 20 to July 7 starring Christian Neal as young Ella, co-directed by McDonald and Michele Baldwin.

By: May. 29, 2024
ELLA THE UNGOVERNABLE By David McDonald To Be Presented By Theater for the New City This June
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“Ella The Ungovernable,” a play with songs by David McDonald, is based on the true story of 15 year-old Ella Fitzgerald's incarceration and eventual escape from The New York Training School For Girls in Hudson, NY, in 1933, which launched her singing career.

This little-known portion of the famed singer's life story, uncovered relatively recently, inspired McDonald, a Hudson-based filmmaker-turned-playwright, to portray it as a story of triumph over adversity. It's the first stage project by a filmmaker who has specialized hitherto in historical subjects. Theater for the New City (TNC) will present the play's NYC debut June 20 to July 7 starring Christian Neal as young Ella, co-directed by McDonald and Michele Baldwin.

Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), the legendary jazz icon, is best known for her stunning and wide-ranging vocal ability. Over the course of her singing career, she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums in addition to capturing the musical attention of a nation for over half a century and helping to define the American Songbook. Composer Ira Gershwin once said, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."

David McDonald began his career as a journalist, moved to Berlin in 1990 and eventually became a music publicist. He moved to Woodstock, NY, in 2000, shifting into film making with the success of his first feature-length documentary, “Woodstock, Can't Get There From Here” (2006), and supplementing his creative work with promotional films (see: https://luminescentmedia.org). Between 2006 and 2019, he wrote documentary screenplays about local Hudson Valley subjects, including Marc Chagall's sojourn there as a Jewish refugee in the late 1940s and the American life of the Parisian nightclub owner Joe Zelli. In 2019, McDonald discovered the long-hidden story of Ella Fitzgerald's teenage incarceration in the NY Training School For Girls and her eventual deliverance from it. His initial idea was to make a dramatic film about the story, using the original Hudson locations where everything had transpired. It worked better as a play and morphed into a 19-character theater production.  "Ella the Ungovernable" premiered at the Valatie Community Theatre, some fifteen minutes north of Hudson, in 2020, just before the pandemic. This is its NYC debut.

McDonald writes, “As a resident of Hudson, I had heard rumblings about this story for years, but presumed it was only Hudson lore.” Applying his skills as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, he uncovered two sources that laid out the story's factual basis: a 1996 New York Times article, “Ward Of The State: The Gap in Ella Fitzgerald's Life” (https://tinyurl.com/4bf7b4uj) and a 2014 article by a group of historians studying the prison system in and around Hudson, NY, "The Ungovernable Ella Fitzgerald" (https://tinyurl.com/mrj8smyn). In writing the play, McDonald filled in the story for dramatic narrative, but with great care, he has preserved the basic facts gleaned from these two articles.

While living in Yonkers, Fitzgerald's mother had died, leaving Ella, age 15, in the care of her reputedly abusive stepfather. She ended up living on the streets of Harlem, working as a lookout for a bordello. She was snapped up by the police and eventually sent up to a semi-prison--Hudson, NY's, Training School For Girls--where she was incarcerated for almost a year before escaping back to Harlem. A few weeks later, a friend convinced her to perform at the first-ever Amateur Night at The Apollo Theater in Harlem. She won the contest singing a song based on a nursery rhyme, "A Tisket A Tasket," which she said she had learned from her mother. Bandleader Chick Webb was in the audience and he hired her on the spot. She was eventually paroled by the State of New York to the Chick Webb Orchestra. The rest, as they say, is history. Fitzgerald and Webb scored their first hit, “A Tisket A Tasket,” in 1938; it has since become a jazz standard. The play includes that song plus a few other spirituals and songs.

In her lifetime, Fitzgerald refused to address her experiences at the New York Training School for Girls. From 1904 to 1975, the facility operated as a reform school for girls aged 12 to 16, some of whom were convicted of delinquency crimes, like truancy, but many of whom were simply discarded by private foster care agencies and orphanages. Investigations have revealed patterns of physical and sexual abuse by school staff and racial segregation into dilapidated housing for African-American young women. In 2019, author McDonald told HudsonValleyOne.com, “I realized that the Ella Fitzgerald story was incredibly pertinent in present-day America, and might add to the nationwide conversation about the awful history of African-American incarceration in this country. What Ella did by escaping the prison and singing at Amateur Night at the Apollo was such a defiant, proud gesture that its message would fit particularly well [in America today]." He also meant the script to inspire kids with the play's mantra of never giving up.

A month-long engagement of the play planned for Theater For The New City in 2021 was quashed by the pandemic, but was partially replaced by a developmental Zoom reading. A second production, scheduled for the 1,000 seat Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie in 2022, was also subsequently canceled by the pandemic. An excerpt of the play was performed this past February in TNC's "Love 'N Courage" gala at The Players.

Ella is played by Christian Neal, an actor with roots in New Orleans who trained with The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and The British American Drama Academy. Her credits include "The White Card" at Soho Theatre in London, and "Perpetual" at Camden People's Theatre in London which she wrote, performed and directed. Alice, Ella's reform school cellmate (a character invented to drive the play forward), is played by Tyra Hughes, who is also known by her R&B stage name, Sage Solaris. She is a Guyanese-American interdisciplinary artist from West Orange, NJ who is currently pursuing a BA in Collaborative Arts at NYU. The cast also includes Michele Baldwin, Simone Black, Martin Challinor, Davon Cochran, Gabrielle Farley, Joe Grosso, Autumn McCree, Michael McGrath, Ebony Nixon, George Pappas, Huston Pigford, Shadenia Sivad, Geneva Turner and Lee Waldrop.

Michele Baldwin (Ella's Mother, co-director) is a performer who has moved into producing and directing for theater, film, TV and fim. Her directing credits include "Eulogy for the Black Man" at the Sugar Hill Festival in  Harlem, "Laura Lee" at the Richmond Shepard Theater,  "Girlfriends"  at EST, "The Ascension of Marie Laveau" at The Players Club, "Visions" at EST and "Music 4 Tha Ladies" at Hudson Guild Theater. She plays Ella's mother in this play.

David McDonald writes, “For years, I had been making films on my own, editing them on my own, circulating them on my own. In the case of Ella, after twenty years of artistic solitude Upstate, I thought it would be great to do something with the community.” He adds, "I had never really felt like I belonged to any sort of artists' community -- my people, per se. That was the first thing I felt when I got around the Theater For The New City crowd -- a feeling finally of being home. I wish I'd had it twenty years before -- I wouldn't have had to spend so much time creating in solitude. Now that I do have it, it inspires me to continue creating for my tribe. And it's all very much in the spirit of Crystal Field, who believes in the power of art to move mountains. Now I don't feel like I have to move the mountain myself. "


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