It's a great, grin-inducing story, and lusty Ann Duquesnay is telling it again in Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter, a stage biography with songs. The songs, of course, are the thing, and Hunter wrote many of them. One is "Downhearted Blues," penned with Lovie Austin, a hotsy-totsy jazz musician who was a pal during the years Hunter spent in Chicago before leaving for New York City and the rest of the world. As Duquesnay reports it, "Downhearted Blues" sold 800,000 copies when recorded by Bessie Smith in 1923; but Duquesnay doesn't say whether Hunter saw all the royalties due her, which many black artists at the time didn't. (Nor, by the way, does Duquesnay mention Austin.)
With the help of Danny Holgate's musical supervision and arranging, Duquesnay sings with enough energy to launch a rocket. Although she is rounder than the real Alberta, who was a broomstick of a thing in her later years, she's got the body English down -- the clenched fists, the arms held close to her body, the hitched hip, and the broad smile that says "We're all in on the same naughty secret."
Since Hunter came of singing age at a rowdy Chicago spot called Dago Frank's, naughtiness was one of the personality items she had to keep in her kit. So Duquesnay pepper-and-salts Hunter's own "My Castle's Rockin'," "Rough and Ready Man," and "I'm Having a Good Time." She also spices "My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More," for which Eubie Blake (a longtime Hunter chum) wrote the music and Andy Razaf supplied the rib-tickling lyrics. Duquesnay handles the song's double entendres with such a touch of the bawd that she practically makes them single entendres. She also gives a memorable rendition of "The Love I Have for You," a ballad that Hunter -- an open lesbian -- wrote with who-knows-whom in mind.
Not all of Hunter's songs are delivered by Duquesnay. Some are offered by Debra Walton, who shares Dale Jordan's simple set -- a comfy chair, a table with a phone, an upstage podium or two -- with the star. (Tuxedoed sidemen George Caldwell, Joe Battaglia, Rodney Harper, and Cliff Kellem play like blazes behind the women.) The compact and lithe Walton plays the young Hunter, who longed to sing from the time she was a Memphis pre-adolescent. During her time in the spotlight, Walton also has a lively go at "My Castle's Rockin'" and lines out "I'm Hard to Satisfy." At one point, duetting with Duquesnay, she impersonates Louis Armstrong with such verve that it seems as if Satchmo himself is appearing live one mo' time.
The Armstrong impression is the highpoint of Walton's turn, but she's worked hard by book writer and director Marion J. Caffey throughout the two-act retrospective, and she signals just how assiduously she's toiling all too often. Among the things she overdoes, as she gets into and out of Marilyn A. Wall's colorful period frocks and Bettie O. Rogers's evocative period wigs, is her portrayal of Barney Josephson. She plays him as a palsied old man, which he wasn't. She also tries the audience's patience with her depiction of Hunter as a little Memphis girl with a big dream. Cutesy as can be, Walton insists, whenever she says the words "I" or "my," on raising her right arm to shoulder height and pointing at her chest with her right thumb. (Does someone know this to be an authentic Hunter mannerism?)
On the topic of what is known about Hunter (b. 1895), book writer Caffey throws in plenty of supposed facts. This is a stage biography, of course, and not a non-fiction hardcover, so there's no time for depth. Nevertheless, what Caffey passes along as true may not be so. There is, for instance, some confusion among Hunter cognoscenti about how old she was when she left Memphis and whether or not she left with her mother's consent.
Throughout the bio-musical, Duquesnay -- who also plays Hunter's mother -- stresses Hunter's devotion to the woman who raised her to sleep facing the window in order to see the sunrise. The positive approach to life implied in this philosophy is indubitably uplifting, but whether Alberta and her mother were as close as stated here seems to be in dispute; there are some who maintain that Hunter resented her mother's preference for a sister who isn't brought up at all. (Records show that Hunter had a half-sister, Josephine Beatty, under whose name she released some of her '20s recordings.) Indeed, Alberta is presented as an only child whom her mother never bothered to see perform.
Other particulars that warrant more stage time than Caffey gives them include Hunter's finding her in-performance demeanor. He has Duquesnay as Hunter admit that, when she started out, she sang the wrong songs in the wrong flute-y style. Her realization of how to work audiences into a frenzy with a gravelly, forthright delivery is skipped over entirely.
In Cookin' at the Cookery, Hunter says that "good luck followed me so close one time that I mistooked it for my butt." Perhaps it was by sheer luck that she found her winning ways. However Alberta Hunter discovered it, Ann Duquesnay has re-discovered it and is spreading it around like a virtuoso.