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The King's Mother

Tony Award-winner Leslie Uggams makes her first non-musical Broadway appearance in August Wilson?s King Hedley II. logo
Leslie Uggams in King Hedley II
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
"I used to be something back then," Leslie Uggams says in character at a pivotal moment in King Hedley II, August Wilson's bracing new drama of gritty ghetto life. So was Uggams. The difference is that she's something these days, too.

The 1968 Tony winner for best actress in a musical (Hallelujah, Baby!), a fixture of "easy listening" popular music since her one-digit years in the 1950s, Uggams appears in the new play as Ruby, the ill-fated mother of the title character, portrayed by Brian Stokes Mitchell. When, at a quiet juncture, she sings a few bars of "Red Sails in the Sunset" and, later, when she cajoles a reluctant Hedley into a gentle waltz, nostalgia is in the air.

"Ruby's so different from me altogether," Uggams--58 next month--said in an interview during a hiatus between the pre-Broadway Washington, D.C., engagement at the Kennedy Center and the start of previews at the Virginia Theatre in New York. "With my kids, I've been very much hands-on--mother, mother, mother. Ruby doesn't know how to mother. Whenever she opens her mouth to say something to her son, she thinks she's doing the right thing, but she just doesn't know how to talk to him. He feels totally abandoned, and she can't understand it. She's thinking, 'Well, I was sending money every week, I was doing my duty.' What a fascinating relationship it is between this mother and son."

Though she has worked Off-Broadway and in regional theaters with some frequency, this happens to be Uggams' first time in a Wilson play. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be doing one of them," she says. "It's been an incredible journey for me." She's referring to the trek that took her from the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where she first assumed the role of Ruby, to the tryout in the nation's capital and now to Broadway; but she easily could have been speaking of the incredible journey that has been her life. Frequently, the name Leslie Uggams prompts the response: Is she still around? She is! But, given her history--her ubiquitous presence on the scene as a young woman and her decreased visibility over the past 15 years or so--it's a fair question.

When Uggams won the Tony for her first Broadway lead (beating out Brenda Vaccaro, Melina Mercouri, and Patricia Routledge), she already had established herself as a highly popular television singer and recording artist. In fact, her TV debut came at the age of six in an early sitcom, Beulah, starring the legendary singer-actress Ethel Waters. (Uggams has clear memories of Waters' later performance in The Member of the Wedding: "Even though I was a very young girl at the time," she says, "I knew there was magic being done on that stage.") At seven, she appeared alongside Maurice Hines as part of a kids' chorus on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater. That same year, she became the opening act for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington at the Apollo Theater in Harlem--quite natural for a kid from Washington Heights whose mom danced at the Cotton Club and whose father sang for a time with the Hall Johnson Choir.

In her early teens, Uggams took a breather from performing to concentrate on school. But she returned at 15 and, on Name That Tune, sang "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." Hearing her, conductor/composer Mitch Miller was so impressed that he secured for her a contract with Columbia Records and added her to his "sing-along" variety hour. ("I learned what professionalism was about from him," Uggams says of Miller). Suddenly, little Leslie had been transformed from cute moppet to musical nova, singing pop, gospel, and the classics of Gershwin and his peers. During that golden age of the TV variety hour, the teenager appeared on Your Show of Shows, The Bell Telephone Hour, The Ed Sullivan Show, etc., etc.

Other opportunities came her way. That's Uggams soulfully singing "Gimme That Ol' Time Religion" in the background as Spencer Tracy ambles out of the courtroom in the final minutes of Stanley Kramer's film version of Inherit the Wind. And when Vincente Minnelli was looking for a chanteuse to sing "Don't Blame Me" in Two Weeks in Another Town, starring Kirk Douglas and Cyd Charisse, his daughter Liza suggested her boyfriend's 18-year-old classmate, Leslie. ("I was terrible," Uggams says of that performance. "You'd think I was 25, in that orange beaded gown with my hair all pulled up!")

Then, after a stretch in a touring production of The Boy Friend and just shy of her 24th birthday, she opened as the lead in Hallelujah, Baby!, a sort of pop history of the first six decades of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of black and white characters. The show was the creation of composer Jule Styne, librettist Arthur Laurents, and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. "My first Broadway show--is that incredible?" Uggams enthuses today. "I would sit down at the piano next to Jule Styne while he and Comden and Green would teach me the songs. That ain't bad! They were a show-within-a-show. You had all these egos, and you never knew what to expect. It was like going to school every day."

She had one more musical opportunity on Broadway: Her First Roman, adapted from George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. This time, the magic failed, even with Richard Kiley (coming off of Kismet, Redhead, and Man of La Mancha) as her costar; the show ran for 17 performances. Things started to look up when CBS gave Uggams her own variety hour, but the gesture was countered when the network placed the show in a killer slot opposite Bonanza on Sunday evenings.

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Leslie Uggams
in King Hedley II
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
For the next couple of decades, relocated to California with her husband-manager Grahame Pratt, Uggams moved about in various creative circles. While raising the couple's two children, Danielle and Justice, she continued her concertizing, appearing in Las Vegas nightclubs and Manhattan boites as well as on Broadway in Blues in the Night and alongside Chita Rivera and Dorothy Loudon in Jerry's Girls. She took over for Patti LuPone as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, then toured with that show. But most of the parts she was offered in movies were victims, and largely forgettable. "Every time I did a film," she remembers, "the director would say to me, 'Why do you want to do this? You sing.' I thought, well, that's not encouraging! But at least it gave me a chance to get out there and start serious acting." She did succeed in television drama, aging more than a half-century as the unforgettable Kizzy in Roots and, in Backstairs at the White House, playing Lillian Rogers Parks, who worked as a maid and seamstress from the Hoover years to the Eisenhower administration.

Then, in 1994, Woodie King, Jr. of the New Federal Theater gave her the break that led to Hedley. Aware that she had played the ingénue in a film version of a play called Black Girl, King decided to stage the drama on its anniversary and cast Uggams in the role of the mother. Playwright John Henry Redwood saw the show and sent her his new piece, The Old Settler, about two sisters and the young man who comes into their lives. Uggams played that show in the regions and then brought it to an Off-Broadway house for a successful run. Impressed by her performance, director Marion McClinton pegged her for Ruby as soon she was free of commitments. (One brief engagement had her playing Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's Master Class at a New Jersey regional theater.) Now, she's out there nightly as the luckless, onetime band singer and mother of King Hedley--a character who initially surfaced as a young woman in Wilson's Seven Guitars, with plot ramifications in the present piece.

"Ruby is tough," says Uggams, whose own hair is now streaked with gray. "She will stand toe to toe with a man. She'll take her licks, but you'll get licks back from her. The sad thing is that, though all these men are always drawn to her, the one person she'd love to be drawn to her is her son--and it just doesn't happen. When she finally gets him to dance with her, she looks at his face, and immediately..."

Uggams prefers not to reveal any more about play's climax. But as for Wilson, she says, "his words are like music. There's a rhythm to them. And, once you get into that groove, it's so enlightening. It's like trying to do Shakespeare. August has long thoughts, and then you go on to another one. You have to work out when you can take pauses."

With the acting careers of both her children blossoming, Uggams thinks a lot about how she avoided some of the traps of show business. "I had a great mother and father who were very family oriented," she says. "Then I lucked out and married a terrific man, and we have great kids. My life has never been just about the business. You enrich what you do so much more when it isn't just about the work. You have to live!"

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