Real-life siblings Obba and Akin Babatunde show off their talents in the musical dramas Sammy and Blind Lemon Blues.
THEATERMANIA: Were you familiar with Sammy Davis Jr. before you took the role?
OBBA BABATUNDE: I had the great pleasure and honor of knowing Sammy personally. We met in 1978 when I was co-starring in a world tour with Liza Minnelli. After he complimented my performance, I said: "I want to thank you for coming in through the kitchen so I could come in the front door." His eyes welled up and tears went down his face as he thanked me for that. I knew him from that time until his passing. He'd sit me down like he was like my uncle and tell me to never quit. "Know that everything that could be done to you has already been done to me." That guided me many times in my own career.
TM: Do you consider him an important figure in African-American history?
OB: I would say that he's an important figure in American history. Sammy lived at a time when America was in great turmoil about race and he navigated his way through it in a way that probably no one before him had done. Sammy was headlining in hotels when Jim Crow laws were still in place. He was one of the men in the first integrated infantry. It is extremely important that we see his iconic life within the time frame in which he lived. At the end of the day, the show is a musical -- we didn't want to make it a history lesson -- but we do touch on many of the conflicting and controversial stories that were associated with his life.
TM: Did you look at archived footage to approximate his performance style?
OB: My intention was not to do an impersonation or a caricature of Sammy; I'd like to say it's my attempt at a reincarnation. Many people remember him through extreme caricatures, but he wasn't just the guy who said "hey man!" There was a heart that had been broken and a mind that had been challenged to be able to endure some of the most horrific attacks on his spirit. I say that it is not what happened to Sammy that made him heroic and iconic but how he responded, which was with tenacity and an absolute unwillingness to quit.
TM: When you say he suffered attacks on his spirit, which do you first think of?
OB: He had a relationship with [white actress] Kim Novak and they both were told that the relationship was not allowed. Additionally, to counteract the bad publicity, Sammy was forced into an arranged marriage with a woman he didn't even know. That resounds loudly because we're dealing with this situation today with the gay community being told who they are allowed to love and marry. It's just another form of modern day "Big Brother" control which is one of the things that Sammy fought. People can see him and his politics however they choose but what I knew about Mr. D is that he refused to be told who he could be. People said he converted to Judaism because he wanted to be white. Well, that speaks to the person's ignorance, because there were black Jews in Harlem in 1929. No matter which way he went, and we touch on this in the show, there was judgment at the cost of alienation from both blacks and whites at one point in his life.
TM: What do you most hope this show tells people about Sammy Davis Jr.?
OB: I would hope that we, like with Michael Jackson, are reminded that there was a great man inside this ball of talent who was probably defined and given to us to get us to take a look at ourselves -- as a country and as a society. I believe that Michael Jackson was the Sammy Davis Jr. of his time; they both carried a huge load and at the end of the day a person is more than their art and there's a human being inside the entertainer.
AKIN BABATUNDE: I had no idea who Blind Lemon was or that he influenced the Beatles and Carl Perkins. I grew up in the Motown era and I wasn't interested in the blues; I thought it sounded like old time slavery music. It's unfortunate because it's part of my culture. When you go to blues concerts, it's mostly young white people who keep the music alive. It's been a real honor and quest for me to research this legendary figure who does not get his due.
TM: So, how did you become enlightened about Blind Lemon?
AB: I was introduced to Alan Govenar who wrote about 15 books on Texas blues, and he had the idea to do a show about Blind Lemon. When we met each other there was an immediate symbiotic relationship and we started writing the text. When I first heard Blind Lemon's scratchy recordings, I thought "what in the hell is he saying?" It was like when I first heard Billie Holliday and I couldn't understand what everyone was talking about. But I had to go deeper to the essence of what is being said and felt; that's the beauty of the blues. It's not all sad. He wrote about 80 songs and seemingly about every human condition. When Alan and I met August Wilson he said he listened to Bind Lemon all the time he was writing Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
TM: How would you characterize his life?
AB: I would say that he lived a courageous life. Not a lot is known about him but what we do know gives no impression that he was down on his luck because he was blind. He played on the corner of Elm and Main in Dallas as if it was his job. He recognized that he had a gift. Then, he was discovered and catapulted to stardom. He didn't die penniless. In fact, he was the first black man to collect royalties on his recordings for Paramount.
TM: What was it like to come back to The York, where you first did this show two years ago?
AB: I cannot honestly tell you how wonderful it is to work at the York. They wouldn't have brought it back if they didn't believe in it. If something is unclear, we go into sessions to work on it. But it isn't like scrutiny; you feel like you are in an artistic haven. I felt that way at La Mama when Ellen Stewart put her hand on my first play -- she didn't even read it -- and said it would open the season at La Mama in 1978. I grew up in New York in theater at a time I wouldn't trade for anything in the world -- when Samuel Jackson, Denzel Washington, and Debbie Allen were all working on their chops and pounding the pavement, and there seemed to be a theater on every corner.