Written by Elmo Terry-Morgan, Hot Comb, in which I played the role of Queen Victoria Africanique, opened on October 3rd, 2002 at Rites and Reason Theatre in Providence. Set in 1917 and inspired by Madam CJ Walker, Hot Comb followed a woman who journeys to Harlem on a quest to find love and financial independence.
There were eight performances that ran from October 3-6 and 10-13, 2002
From Elmo Terry-Morgan’s program notes:
This Gallery performance of Hot Comb is a first look at a work in progress. All of the elements are in full display, like a look backstage, for your viewing and assessment.
Instead of creating a play about the life of the famous entrepreneur and philanthropist, Madam C.J. Walker, I chose to write one about how she inspired a generation of Black women of her time. Before The Madam, most Black women worked in the fields, factories, or in the homes of wealthy White people. These were their life choices. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to ex-slaves in Delta, Louisiana, Madam Walker created a business empire through the manufacture, sale, and application of a hair care method especially designed for Black women. Known world-wide, she was considered to be the richest Negro woman in the world. Although she has been called a millionaire, that is a myth. She never amassed a clear one million dollars, at one time, in her lifetime. Another myth is that she invented the hot comb or straightening comb. Actually, it was invented by the French hair stylist, Marcel Grateau, creator of the Marcel wave. Madam Walker’s hair treatment method popularized its use among Black women.
I also wanted to incorporate my interest in Black Gay History into the play. Most of the action occurs during the late 19-teens, the dawning of the Harlem Renaissance. Much is whispered about the sexuality of well-known Harlem artists of the time. I chose not to focus on them but, rather, on regular folks and how they dealt with their sexuality in a time of so many contradictions and cultural restrictions. Black folks were migrating from the South and coming to Harlem in masses. Living within restricted boundaries, these Southern transplants had to learn to live together with “every walk of life”. This was the birth of a New Negro, an urban one, a more sophisticated one.
From the Brown University Website:
The Department of Africana Studies’ Rites and Reason Theatre is a research and developmental theatre dedicated to giving expression to the diverse cultures and traditions of continental and diasporic Africans and the vast Africana experience.
Rites and Reason’s unique Research-to-Performance Method (RPM) is a systematic process that organizes teams of artists, scholars and researchers in the scholarly and creative development of new theatrical performances. RPM teams engage in direct dialogue with the community throughout the developmental process from ideas to readings to workshops to mainstage productions.
The Rites and Reason method includes the development of innovative theatrical forms rooted in Africana cultural traditions and expressions. Within Africana cultural traditions art is a creative manifestation of thought and culture. As such, Rites and Reason is a critical space for artists, writers, and scholars to explore and engage Africana intellectual and cultural traditions, translating them into creative theatrical and expressive forms.
From the Brown Daily Herald – Arts & Culture, Friday, October 4, 2002, by Momoko Hirose, page 3:
Bass, drum and upright piano spice up the atmosphere with jazz riffs and soulful accents to open the musical drama “Hot Comb” at the Rites and Reason Theatre. From the hum of summer crickets to the bustle of New York, Hot Comb is an addictive sensory and emotional trek.
The simple, clean set and lighting allow for a true focus on the characters and give the audience a sense of intimacy replete with questioning sexuality, negotiating family ties and finding success in the least likeliest of places, the charisma of the characters colors this musical drama.
Using the story of Madame C.J. Walker as a backdrop, the heroine O’dessa strives to become a successful business woman through her skills with the hot comb and Madame Walker’s hair care products. The hot comb, a simple metal comb used to straighten hair, symbolizes her potential success, a new method and a new look for the “New Negro” in Harlem. Yet issues with her family, love life and business threaten her future path.
Presented as a gallery, Hot Comb is still a work in progress, with actors sometimes on book, and some costume changes on stage. Yet the lack of blackouts or tech people moving props lent a fluidity and naturalness to the play.
One of the first things the audience notices is the three incarnations of O’dessa, with Dessie Lee, O’dessa, and Madam Dessaline. Madam Dessaline, with her brownstone Harlem apartment and fine clothes, looks back at her younger southern girl, Dessie Lee. Writer Elmo Terry-Morgan, associate professor of Africana Studies, said the hardest part was hitting on developing a story and a form to express it in. The script is an aggregation of song, rhyme, poetry and prose, adding dimension and interest.
“(This work) is really a merging of different interests and different fascinations,” Terry-Morgan said. He said thee include the history of gay blacks, investigating Madam Walker’s influence on the black women and understanding the “New Negro” development with the Great Black Migration/
The clever inclusion of slides projected on the backdrop allowed the audience some historical context and background for the play. While adding an aesthetic plus, the slides also provide convenient information.
With various platforms on the stage, the older Madam Dessaline could separate her time and space by sitting on a higher riser. Again, creative placement on stage construction add clarity to the play.
The live three-man band also provides the jazzy blues feel of the roaring 1920’s. From decadence to good times, and sorrow to bad times, the songs ranged from swing jazz to gospel choir.
Costume changes are few, with most of the ensemble wearing mostly black and small accessories. Yet the highlight is definitely the Hamilton Lodge Ball, the grand drag beauty contest. Tiara (Andre Thompson), La Dona D’oro (Michael Chen-Illamos) and Alabaster (Matt Puntigam) appeared in decadent costumes of ruffles, pleats and beads, complete with four inch platforms and towering hair.
In the hustle and bustle of O’dessa’s life, one can see the various tensions evident during the so-called tumultuous “nightmare years” of 1890 to 1920. The frank presentations of gays and lesbians and the complexities of “sophisticated urban blacks” versus “improper rural blacks” all add up to describe the difficulties of the times. Poetry slam rap, gospel, jazz and blues make Hot Comb a sizzling combination.
From George Street Journal – A publication for the Brown University Community, Vol. 27, No. 6., October 4-10, Hot Comb takes its cue from African-American entrepreneur, by Ricardo Howell:
“An independent woman is what I planned for me, to be as free and safe as I could be” says the character Madam Dessaline in Hot Comb, a new musical drama which Rites and Reason Theatre presents October 3-6 and 10-13 at Churchill House.
Echoing the 1867-1919 life of famed African American hair-care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, Hot Comb introduces Dessaline, along with Dessie Lee and O’dessa, two younger incarnations of the same.
Madam C.J. Walker “inspired a generation of black women in her lifetime,” says Elmo Terry-Morgan, Rites and Reason’s artistic director and Hot Comb playwright.
Born into Louisiana poverty like the woman at the musical’s center, Walker founded a hair-care empire, which included an international army of hundreds of Walker Agents who sold Walker’s signature “wonderful hair grower.” These women attended Walker’s “hair culturist” schools to learn the use of the Walker system and the titular hot comb, which could treat scalp diseases like tetter and the other grooming issues of women’s hair.
With the rarely-told entrepreneur story in its foreground, Hot Comb recovers a Harlem nearly boiling over with the cultural energy that would comprise the Harlem Renaissance, and alludes to World War I, Prohibition, and the 1917 silent protest march against lynching, among other historical events.
In departure from Walker’s life, Terry-Morgan also blends his knowledge of black gay history to create an intersection of lives and social networks beyond the mainstream. Says Judith Swift, the musical director, “The metaphors of Hot Comb are as much about gender and transgender as they are about entrepreneurship.”
The cast of Hot Comb – comprised of students in the course titled Staging the RPM Script additional students and members of the Rites and Reason ensemble – continues Rites and Reason’s research-to-performance pedagogy, which allows students to integrate their character research into the experience of performance.
And like Walker, the characters in Hot Comb create their own lives and options in the constricted physical and social space of the era. Says Terry-Morgan, “In what would seem like despair, Madam C.J. Walker not only had a dream, she had a vision.”