Councilwoman shows other side with musicals

by Eric Ginsburg

Watching Dianne Bellamy-Small at a Greensboro City Council meeting, it’s easier to believe that the powerful District 1 councilwoman used to be a police officer than to picture the mezzo soprano singing classics from various musicals.

Standing in the center of a nearly circular church sanctuary, with  warm reds, purples and blues streaming in from four identical stained-glass windows above, Bellamy-Small looked like she was born for the stage. It wasn’t just that she was smiling — a rare sight at council meetings — her powerful and evocative voice has been trained over the years for performances like this.

At 60, Bellamy-Small chose to celebrate her birthday singing her favorite songs from various musicals. Surrounded by around 100 attendees, including many of her family members, the mayor, the coliseum director and an incoming county commissioner, south Greensboro’s voice on city council organized the event in part to benefit the Transition Network, a nonprofit she started to help ex-felons reintegrate.

While Bellamy-Small’s musical talent may come as a surprise, anyone who is familiar with her decades of service could understand her selections for the event, most of which were uplifting and inspiring ballads about helping. Her last song before a brief intermission, “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy & Bess, was one of the few exceptions. After a charged performance where she threw her head back and arms open and up towards the heavens, Bellamy-Small walked slowly off stage with a walking stick, head down and gently shaking, and it was took a second to remember she wasn’t an actress exiting stage left in a play.

It was difficult not to think of the lyrics to her chosen songs and apply them to the context of her service on council and in the community, with lyrics extolling the need to help each other and improve the world or a line in “People” from I Don’t Remember, about people “acting more like children than children.”

Accompanied by Sheryl McAdoo on piano, whom Bellamy-Small stopped to acknowledge and applaud during “People,” she sang other lines like “I decided long ago/ never to walk in anyone’s shadow,” from “The Greatest Love of All” popularized by Whitney Houston. The song was originally part of The Greatest, a musical about Muhammad Ali.

Bellamy-Small gestured emphatically, performing with great ease and making encouraging eye contact with people around the room as she sang selections like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel and others from The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Her gentle and calming tone and demeanor would occasionally erupt as a song reached its peak, cascading down before ending with a smile from the councilwoman. Her dual talents and commitments, as well as the long list of service experience and other accomplishments listed in the program, served as a reminder of the complexity of people and just how long Bellamy-Small has been tirelessly trying to help people.

The performance, which lasted just over an hour, culminated as Bellamy-Small passionately sang “And He Blessed My Soul,” — described as her “song’s life journey’s testimony” — leaving the stage and walking around the center of the room. With some audience members mouthing the words she choked up as the song crescendoed. After the crowd rose to its feet in applause, Bellamy-Small pushed forward and finished the songs, letting go of what appeared to be tears of joy.

Before a closing prayer for her and her family, Bellamy-Small asked attendees to support the Transition Network, drawing parallels between herself and the people it serves.

“I’m no different than they are — as the songs showed. I just didn’t get caught,” she said, adding that people make bad decisions but should be able to move on. Before the event ended, Bellamy-Small invited the attendees to join her in the fellowship hall to celebrate her birthday, just as long as they didn’t take more than four ribs at a time so there would be enough for everyone.