"In the time of Edison inventing the light bulb, in the time of the Wright brothers transforming man into bird, she changed the way people saw these unseen women who were domestic workers and field hands," says Taylor, whose previous works include Crowns and Drowning Crow. Indeed, Walker put her own photo on her shampoos at a time when it was unprecedented to see the image of a dark-skinned black woman on a beauty product.
As succesful as she was in business, Walker had a less than harmonious personal life. "The flaw in Madam was that she had a hard time seeing what was closest to her," says Taylor, adding that Walker's myopia contributed to the end of her three marriages and made her relationship with her daughter A'Lelia notoriously rocky.
Taylor, who is also directing the play, watched early silent films for ideas and inspiration about the staging. (Walker died in 1919, before the era of the "talkies.") "What I took from the films in terms of the look of the piece were these black-and-white and sepia tones," says the playwright. The final piece of the puzzle was finding the perfect actress to play Walker: Tony Award-winner L. Scott Caldwell. "I'm a huge fan and admirer, and I've known her for years," Taylor remarks, "but I never had a chance to work with her before."
The show is set in 1953 at Mary's Hideaway, a fictional Hollywood jazz club where homosexuals congregate. "I've been a songwriter for 30 years," says Winkler, who contributed to the long-running hit Naked Boys Singing and is the creator/writer of Too Old for the Chorus, now playing in San Diego. "I've written for Dianne Reeves, Liza Minnelli, Nancy Wilson. Then, about 20 years ago, I became a jazz singer. My friend Larry Dean Harris said, 'Why don't we do a sort of Mamma Mia! for Mark Winkler? Let me write a musical around your songs.' But I've done enough shows to know that you should write the book first and then add the songs, so that's what I asked Mark to do. He came up with a script and then he found places for about 18 songs of mine that I had written with various composers. We had a reading of the show and decided that six of the songs worked well with the story as written. I rewrote six others to fit the plot better, and there are seven new songs that I wrote with Phillip Swann."
Winkler is thrilled with Harris' work on Play It Cool. "Larry is a real aficionado of gay culture in Los Angeles," he says. "I love the story he came up with because I'm an L.A. native. I wasn't part of the scene in 1953 -- I was born in 1949 -- but I remember what the city was like in those days. Larry and I did a lot of research. We found that if there was a lesbian woman in a club back then, she had to be wearing at least three pieces of female apparel or she would get busted. Also, women could make the drinks but not serve them. The police were always cracking down on these clubs and taking a lot of graft to let them stay open."
The fact that both gay men and lesbians are represented in Play It Cool pleases Winkler. "The men and women in the show help each other, " he says. "In fact, the woman who runs the club takes a gay guy under her wing and teaches him how to sing jazz, which is a metaphor. As a jazz singer and a gay man, I think there are a lot of similarities between the two; both are sort of underground, on the fringes, not for a general audience. Like gay people, jazz musicians don't play it straight. Another element of the show that appeals to me is that it has a film noir feel, but it's very entertaining. It doesn't hit you over the head."
Billed as "a comedy about a boy who loves a girl who loves a boy who loves a boy who needs therapy," the play flopped on Broadway in 1982 despite the fact that the leading roles were played by John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest. However, it had an earlier, more successful Off-Broadway production, starring Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Collins, that LaFrance saw. "At the time, It seemed like such strange material," he recalls. "It was the early '80s and there weren't many plays that dealt with homosexuality."
Plays with gay themes -- including The Boys in the Band, End of the World Party, and The Last Sunday in June -- have been the Island Rep's bread and butter. Later this summer, the company will present James Edwin Parker's Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night, directed by Obie Award winner David Drake. "But we actually started out with Love Letters, performed by a man and a woman," notes LaFrance.
No matter what the production, the company usually manages to attract an audience. "Theater is a hard sell out here," LaFrance says, "because people who are on vacation don't necessarily want to go and see a play. But we usually have good houses, and the actors are enthusiastic. There's a group of people who would rather rehearse a show than go to the beach or do most anything else."