Jimi’s ladies: foxy, electric
Entering the refurbished Piedmont Leaf Lofts on Thursday – right at the temporal mid-point of the weeklong National Black Theater Festival – was a bit like stepping into a speakeasy. Although a shingle out front indicated the upstairs presence of the WhiteSpace Gallery, no sign of it was visible from the street. When I walked through an unmarked main door, a well-dressed man greeted me and offered me a choice of stairs or elevator to the second-floor gallery. I chose the stairs. He guided me through the parking garage to a small door. “It’s directly across on the second floor,” he said. The Piedmont Leaf Lofts used to be two tobacco warehouses that have since been converted to high-end residences. The aesthetic is a wobbly balance of utilitarian storage facility and posh, urban living. I was thrown by the stairwell doors, which are swinging metal things that must have been lightened considerably since their industrial-age construction. Inside, the gallery is an open space divided into sections for visual art and performance, and an apartment for the owners. At 9:30 p.m., the advertised “curtain” time, actors in street clothes rehearsed rudimentary blocking for a staged reading of two full-length plays: Electric Lady: Women in the Life of Jimi Hendrix and Black Panther Women. The crowd was dapper, as befits a theater performance, and they slowly coagulated in the main performance space. At a little past 10 p.m., the actors filtered in, some thrashing to the sounds of Hendrix coming from a compact boom box. “Let’s go back to the sixties,” said playwright Jerome Preston Bates, after he informed the crowd that the play was a work in progress. The premise: Five women, Hendrix’s lovers, gather in a greenroom prior to the shooting of a documentary. On “The Jerry Springer Show” that kind of guest list would necessitate an investment in extra security. But in this case, the women behaved themselves. With the exception of a little clucking, dismissive headshakes and menacing looks, they seemed to tolerate each other’s presence. They even goaded each other on when it came to depictions of Hendrix’s sexual prowess. According to the performers, Hendrix was highly influenced by women. In fact, female family members raised him after his mother died when he was only four. But his respect for the fairer sex didn’t preclude a little hound-dogging. Several of the girlfriends overlapped, especially during the period when Hendrix traveled frequently between the States and England. “I was Jimi’s real woman,” said Rosalee, his pre-fame girlfriend. Kathy from England claimed the guitarist wrote “The Wind Cries Mary” about her. Mary was her middle name. The women’s reminisces of Hendrix were punctuated by exposition, poetry and song lyrics. The music swelled and diminished during the monologue breaks. Monica from Germany has the dubious honor of being Hendrix’s last girlfriend and the one with him on the night he dies. The other girlfriends distrust her, and stop just shy of placing outright blame on her for the singer’s death. The tale reaches its dramatic climax when Monica reenacts the fateful evening when barbiturates and alcohol collided fatally in Hendrix’s bloodstream. Electric Lady is a thick script, and the reading ended a little before 11:30. The audience headed to buffet tables to snack on crackers and sweets, and the director reshuffled folding chairs into the smaller art gallery. A 10-minute intermission stretched to 20, then 30 minutes. I eyed the actors’ scripts for Black Panther Woman. They looked even stouter than the last play. I struggled to stay awake, and at midnight made the executive decision to drive back to Greensboro before I passed out. So I missed Black Panther Woman, a play I really wanted to see. Instead I found the door, stumbled back through the parking lot and got in my car. Behind me, in a space I couldn’t see, the celebration continued.
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