By Jerome Langston
In an Oprah show approved sort of way, Charity Dawson has been preparing for the role of Effie Melody White since she was a little girl. Talking to me by phone as she dashes off to a rehearsal in New York City, where she is based, the star of the current touring production of the legendary Broadway musical, Dreamgirls, recalls her first time hearing Jennifer Holliday sang.
“My father used to be in a group called The Followers of Christ, and on one of their live recordings, Jennifer Holliday was at their concert… She’s singing with them and everything, and I’m like ‘who is this lady and what is this voice’,’’ Dawson explains, chuckling just a bit. “So he played me music from the original Broadway show, as a kid.”
Hearing that music from the original Broadway show recording impacted Dawson in a profound way. She later attended a conservatory and was assigned music to learn from Dreamgirls. Additionally, and perhaps almost as importantly, she’s seen various different productions of the show “about 15 times,” she says. So when the opportunity to land a role in this current touring production was presented, she “just wanted to be in it.”
Dawson was especially flattered, of course, to land the role of Effie in the musical. Holliday originated that role on Broadway, and won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, back in 1982. And Jennifer’s rendition of the now iconic, powerhouse ballad, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” would even go on to win her a Grammy.
I tell Charity towards the beginning of our conversation, that I know that she can really sing, just by the fact that she was cast as Effie. Effie’s solo numbers are so freakin’ demanding, vocally, that an average, run of the mill vocalist couldn’t possibly deliver them convincingly. Yet Charity doesn’t acknowledge any previous trepidation about taking on, in particular, “And I Am Telling You,” as the song has been a part of her repertoire for years now. And plus, she’s since been earning raves from critics and audiences alike, who have seen this production of Dreamgirls, which plays the Ferguson Center for the Arts, for two nights here next month.
“It’s amazing and surreal because this is my absolute favorite show, hands down, of all time,” Dawson acknowledges, referring to her experience so far, starring as Effie.
When Dreamgirls premiered on Broadway in December of 1981, it was an instant theatrical smash that ran until August of 1985. Starring Jennifer Holliday as Effie White, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Deena Jones, Loretta Devine as Lorrell Robinson, Ben Harney as Curtis Taylor Jr., and Cleavant Derricks as James “Thunder” Early, the show, loosely based on the rise of the sixties biggest girl group, The Supremes, was nominated for an astounding 13 Tony awards. Besides the myriad of stage productions that followed, Dreamgirls was also adapted into a blockbuster film, starring Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx, back in 2006. For her performance as Effie in the film, singer Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2007.
Dreamgirls begins in a 1960s Harlem, where a female vocal trio, then called the Dreamettes, are performing at the famed Apollo Theater, during the venue’s infamous Amateur Night. Their “win” ends up being a meeting with used car salesman, Curtis Taylor Jr., which leads to him managing them. The plot takes so many twists and turns from there, with Taylor eventually building a substantial business empire; much like Berry Gordy did with Motown. Effie is eventually demoted from being lead singer of the Dreamettes, and they become The Dreams. Deena Jones becomes the lead singer, ala Diana Ross, and that leads to major tension between her, Curtis and Effie, which eventually leads to White being unfairly fired from the group. During the show’s two acts, which cover the turbulent sixties and more carefree seventies, multiple relationships break up and make up, the massive, often racist corruption in the American music industry is significantly explored, and the transformative power of sixties era African-American pop and R&B, is fully realized in a glitzy spectacle of a show. The nearly three hour running time feels much shorter, as the pacing is much more akin to film, then the typically more languid pacing of theatre.
“There’s nothing like live theatre, across the board in general,” Charity, who previously starred in the touring production of The Color Purple, asserts. “The sets and the costume changes…it’s just a thrilling ride to go on as an audience member.”
Ferguson Center for the Arts