Cookin´At The Cookery

REVIEW by Willard Manus

The late singer/songwriter Alberta Hunter had a remarkable career. Coming out of Memphis in 1907 (when she was only fifteen), she broke into the tough, competitive Chicago blues scene after a hard fight and was soon sharing stages with the likes of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. Not long after that, one of her original songs, Downhearted Blues, was covered by Bessie Smith and ended up selling nearly a million copies. The ballad is still sung widely today.

An invite to New York followed and for the next decade Hunter was one of the toasts of Broadway, appearing in such musical hits as How Come and Brown Sugar. Then Europe beckoned and she scored a triumph in the London production of Hammerstein & Kern's Showboat (opposite Paul Robeson). She was also a featured performer in Radio Parade of 1935, Britain's first feature film in color. Hunter then toured the continent as a soloist, recording as well with Sidney Bechet, Clarence Williams and Jack Jackson's London society orchestra.

The outbreak of war sent her back to the states, where she had her own network radio show and made more recordings. She wanted to work on Broadway again but was outraged when a new musical (Debut) offered her the role of a maid. In rebellion against that kind of racial stereotyping, she volunteered to help put together the first black USO show, eventually making twenty-five tours to various European and Pacific battle zones. Among those who cheered her were generals MacArthur and Eisenhower. Later Hunter also entertained the troops in Korea.

The death of her mother in 1956, plus other personal and professional disappointments, motivated Hunter to retire from showbiz in 1956. Knocking ten years off her age, she studied nursing at a YMCA school and ended up working until 1977 at Goldwater Memorial Hospital, Welfare Island, NYC, at which time a surprise call came from Barney Josephson, owner of The Cookery nightclub in downtown Manhattan.

Offered a couple of weeks of work, Hunter dazzled Cookery audiences with her still vibrant, powerful, bluesy voice. The show ended up running more than a year.

All this history is re-created in COOKIN' AT THE COOKERY--THE MUSIC & TIMES OF ALBERTA HUNTER by Marion J. Caffey, the musical about Hunter which recently opened at the newly refurbished Brentwood Theatre, on the grounds of the Veterans Administration. B T once served as a USO venue, making one wonder whether the real Alberta Hunter ever sang there. Regardless, the building has been given a resplendent facelift and, at 499 seats, will undoubtedly house many a musical in years to come. B T has been leased to the Geffen Playhouse for the next two years, while the latter's Westwood home gets its own rehab job.

Caffey, who has also directed and choreographed COOKIN', has come up with a fresh way to tell Hunter's story. Ann Duquesnay, who won kudos on Broadway for such shows as Blues in the Night and Jelly's Last Jam, plays Hunter as an adult. Montego Glover (Dreamgirls, The Pirates of Penzance) impersonates Hunter in her younger years. Both performers step in and out of other roles, with amazing skill and ease. Glover even does a brief but dazzling imitation of Satchmo.

COOKIN' covers a lot of territory (the show runs 2 1/2 hours) and sometimes suffers because of it: we learn, for example, that Hunter was a lesbian, but not how "playing on the wrong team" affected her private and professional life. It's also unclear why her beloved mother never came to one of her performances.

These and other flaws are more than compensated for by the generous musical part of the show. Duquesnay and Glover sing more than two dozen songs, including full renditions of Downhearted Blues, St Luois Woman, When the Saints Go Marching In, My Handy Man and The Love I Have For You, among others. Backed by a topnotch jazz quartet, Duquesnay and Glover truly do cook up a storm at the Brentwood. Call (310) 208-5454 or visit