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Days of Their Lives

TheaterMania reviews Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Redefining Diva; Ian Donaldson’s Ben Johnson: A Life; and Patty Farmer’s The Persian Room Presents: An Oral History of New York’s Most Magical Night Spot.

Sheryl Lee Ralph puts a new spin on the idea of the oft-maligned prima donna in her new memoir, Redefining Diva: Life Lessons from the Original Dreamgirl (Gallery Books). Not only does DIVA serve as an acronym for “Divinely Inspired Victoriously Anointed,” but it is also the namesake of her 22-year-old HIV/AIDS charity, The Diva Foundation.

In the book, Ralph takes her readers on a journey through her divilacious career, leaving plenty of room for reflection and life lessons. As she admits, Ralph has led a charmed life in some ways: her first audition in Los Angeles was in front of Sidney Poitier for the film A Piece of the Action, and she got the part for which he was considering his own daughter, Pamela. Not long after, she won the role of Deena Jones in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls, which earned her a Tony Award nomination, and she has also appeared on Broadway in such shows as Thoroughly Modern Millie.

While Ralph is incredibly humble and appreciative of the many wonderful people with whom she’s gotten to work over the years, including Bill Cosby, Robert De Niro, and Denzel Washington, she is unflinching in her assessments of those who have been less than wonderful to her. She recreates her icy first encounter with Diana Ross, believed by many to be the inspiration for Deena Jones; goes into detail about the cruel manipulations of her Dreamgirls director Michael Bennett; and angrily recounts an audition for the short-lived sitcom Sanford at which television producer Bud Yorkin told her, “You just aren’t black enough.”

Ralph soars when evangelizing about the plight of the young black actress. She excoriates the Hollywood culture of, “ghetto-fied dialogue that was written by some old white guy who would never dream of going within ten miles of a real ghetto.” Ralph credits her staunch refusal to play “dead, black, naked whore” roles for a 10-year absence from the Hollywood screen, but also for the unlikely and wonderful roles she has gotten to play on stage and television. Ralph dreamed big and she has an awful lot to show for it.

Ian Donaldson’s exhaustive and extremely thoughtful new biography, Ben Jonson: A Life (Oxford University Press) is not just a thorough examination of the life of the famed playwright (best known today for the stage satires Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair), but a vivid portrait of intellectual, artistic, and political life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

Donaldson portrays Jonson as the bad boy poet of his era: he faced numerous imprisonments for sedition stemming from his often biting verse and a felony conviction for the dueling-related death of actor Gabriel Spenser. Indeed, Donaldson notes, “Fighting would become a habitual response which was to govern much of Jonson’s behavior for better or for worse, throughout his later life.”

Given this, it is all the more remarkable that Jonson would rise to become the most celebrated poet of his day. Fortunately, Johnson’s frosty relations with the Elizabethan state gave way to the patronage of her successor James I, when Jonson became a vigorous author of court masques, beginning with the ostentatious “Masque of Blackness” in which James’s Queen, Anne of Denmark appeared in blackface with several other ladies of the court.

Donaldson excels in unwrapping the political and social complexities of the day, revealing that Jonson is never very far from the center of controversy. The son of an Anglican minister who lost his entire estate when he refused to convert to Catholicism under Bloody Mary, Jonson himself did convert to the Roman faith for 12 years, only to re-convert back to Anglicanism following the assassination of King Henri IV of France by a Catholic fanatic. And while he was an ardent critic of “the loathèd stage” (as Jonson was wont to call it), he nevertheless continued to work as a playwright into his waning years.

Author Patty Farmer is in many ways the ideal person to author The Persian Room Presents: An Oral History of New York’s Most Magical Night Spot (Vantage Press), since she lives right above the former nightclub in one of the Plaza Hotel’s new condominiums. While the Plaza — and all of New York City — has changed a lot since the Persian Room was opened in 1934, the ghosts of a bygone era are brought vividly back to life in this engaging book.

The Persian Room may not have been the largest or most famous cabaret of its era, but it was certainly the classiest, with its exotic faux-Persian design by Joseph Urban. No wonder this intimate space became a premiere destination for top talent. Ethel Merman, Liza Minnelli, and Frank Sinatra all performed there during the room’s 41-year run. Liberace initially played The Persian Room as an intermission pianist before headlining a show of his own. Not one, but two live albums were recorded there in September 1958 when Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday all graced the stage.

Part of the fun of visiting the Persian Room was often seeing just as many famous people in the audience as on stage, and Farmer recounts visits by such luminaries as John F. Kennedy, Joan Crawford, and Cary Grant.

Farmer adroitly steps out of the way for much of this book, allowing her interview subjects to speak for themselves, whether it’s Diahann Carroll recounting softball games with her daughter in the Plaza hallways or Don Dellair telling the unlikely story of coming up short on his bill and the Maitre D’ offering to let him “come back later” with the money (he did!). In the end, it’s impossible to not be drawn into the story of this magical New York City landmark.