Duke Ellington’s "Queenie Pie"
I’m a fan of Duke Ellington’s work, having discovered jazz and his place in its repertoire as a teenager. Even those who don’t consider themselves aficionados are likely still familiar with his style, with Ellington having composed such timeless standards such as "It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)," "Stormy Weather" and "The Mooche."
It’s safe to say that Ellington is one of the most prominent figures in the development and popularization of jazz music, which is the precursor to virtually all American popular music. So when I heard that his one and only opera, "Queenie Pie," was being performed by the Chicago Opera Theater and Chicago Jazz Orchestra, I leapt at the chance to familiarize myself with this little-known work of Ellington’s. I was disappointed to find that, though Ellington’s music therein still showcases his genius, the other elements of this production fall surprisingly short of the quality one would expect from a work bearing his name.
"Queenie Pie" is based loosely on the life of Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American businesswoman who, in the early 20th century, became the first female self-made millionaire through the development and marketing of beauty products geared towards the African-American community. Originally commissioned as a television piece to feature Lena Horne, Ellington began work on "Queenie Pie" in 1962, with the work remaining incomplete at his death in 1974.
Set in Harlem in the 1930s, Queenie is a dark-skinned African-American woman who has won, again, a "Queenie Pie" title in honor of her talent as a beautician. During her celebratory party, Café Au Lait enters, a light-skinned Creole competitor bent on creating a name for herself in the world of cosmetics.
Café Au Lait seems to desire all that is Queenie’s, including the affections of Queenie’s manager and some-time lover Holt. The women, in one of the few highlights of the evening, wordlessly croon seductive melodies as they display their assets in front of the entranced and fickle Holt.
Holt begins to work as both Café Au Lait’s and Queenie’s manager as the women go into competition with each other. Café Au Lait, flaunting her fair skin, targets the community of darker-skinned African women to whom Queenie had catered.
Though Café Au Lait is Creole and comes by her complexion naturally, she has no qualms about lying to her insecure customer base, selling her skin bleaching products that promise to remove the undesirable darker tones from the women’s skin as her hair treatments promise to straighten out the unruly kinks of their locks. Queenie discovers Holt’s duplicity, and a confrontation between the women results in Holt’s murder at Café Au Lait’s hands, who is sent to jail for her crime.
Sinking into a depression, Queenie is sent to a mysterious island by her servant Lil Daddy, with the mission to return with a magical flower. Greeted by enthusiastic natives, Queenie sets a goal of becoming a queen for real and seduces the island’s king, who then rejects her. In the interim, Café Au Lait completes her incarceration, and upon her release, also travels to the remote island at the behest of Lil Daddy. The women confront each other, discovering their common bonds and making peace with their pasts.
The themes expressed in "Queenie Pie" speak a great deal to the times in which both the piece is set and during which it was written. During the 1960s and ’70s civil rights, Black Nationalism and the feminist movement forced Americans of every race and sex to redefine themselves and their places in society. Colorism was also an element gaining more visibility as the "Black is Beautiful" became a powerful slogan entering popular culture.
Such relevant political and cultural themes combined with the revolutionary jazz standards composed by Ellington should have made for an extraordinary evening of entertainment. Ergo, it was disappointing to discover just how dull "Queenie Pie" was in production.
Lyrics were plodding and without the poetry necessary to match Ellington’s music; the story was choppy and often difficult to follow. The performers had fine voices, to be sure, but with characters so one-dimensional (and, in the case of the happy island people, insultingly stereotypical), their performances were hard to enjoy no matter how engaging they tried to be. The sets, though beautiful, did nothing to create spaces for the actors to live in.
The saving grace, of course, is the music of Ellington, so brilliant as to rise about the mediocrity of "Queenie Pie" as a whole. Still, if one is interested in exploring Ellington’s music, one is better off watching "Duke Ellington, Live in ’58" on DVD, or seeing the film "Anatomy of a Murder," featuring a score by Ellington, or simply investigating his sizable discography (Ellington composed more than 3,000 songs during his lifetime).
UPDATE: Due to a fire at the Harris Theatre, "Queenie Pie" performances must be rescheduled. The show now runs through March 23 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E Randolph St in Chicago. For tickets or more information, call 312-704-8414 or visit www.chicagooperatheater.org.