Vintage Theatre Artistic Director Bernie Cardell did not intend to make a statement when he cast Mary Louise Lee as one of the first Black actors ever to play the iconic role of Momma Rose in the classic 1959 Broadway musical “Gypsy.”
But he made one anyway.
Lee’s very presence in this particular real-life story makes a statement in itself about positive strides that are being made in the American theater. One where we finally seem to be bending toward a world where no one is inherently miscast based on the color of their skin. And where every actor can bring a lifetime of unique experiences and offer a new lens through which we can see archetypal characters anew.
“I do believe it is a political statement for me to be cast in this particular role,” Lee said, and it is this: “If I can play the hell out of the role, then my skin color won’t matter.”
Cardell wasn’t even planning to direct the well-worn story of the show-biz mother from hell who projects her own failed vaudeville ambitions onto her two traumatized daughters. But as he watched Lee command the stage as a maid in the Aurora Fox’s 2019 production of “Caroline, Or Change,” it hit him. “She has to play this part,” he thought.
And so, after the performance, he asked her to do it. Lee was momentarily shocked. Not because Rose was a White woman in the early 1920s. Because it had never occurred to her that she would ever be asked. “But the way she looked back at me, I knew right then and there that she was going to do it,” Cardell said.
This was before the George Floyd murder and the national movement to demand greater representation for artists of color both onstage and in administrative roles at the nation’s predominantly white theater companies. Cardell just knew that she would slay the role.
He also knew that getting a woman of Lee’s caliber back onto the Vintage Theatre stage, where she previously starred as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” would be a major coup. Lee’s professional stage career began back when she was cast in “Beehive, the 1960s Musical” at what is now the Garner Galleria Theatre while she was a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School.
Even then, Lee was breaking racial barriers. In 1988, she was cast as Nancy in “Oliver,” becoming one of the first Black students at a Denver public high school to get a leading role playing a white character. And because she, yes, slayed it, that opened the doors for many more minority students to participate in theater at her school.
Since then, Lee has sung the national anthem before 78,000 Denver Broncos fans and performed on “America’s Got Talent.” She has performed at three Democratic National Conventions and on military bases worldwide. She won True West and Henry awards for “Caroline, Or Change.”
There is not a musical theater fan out there who shouldn’t want to see Lee dig her heels into Stephen Sondheim’s signature, gut-scraping song “Rose’s Turn” in “Gypsy.” Not in spite of her Blackness. Because of it.
Because no Black woman was given the opportunity to play what has been called the greatest female role in American musical-theater history for the first 55 years of its existence. Not until Leslie Uggams was cast in a production at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in 2014. “I’d always wanted to play Rose but assumed that I’d never be considered because she was based on a real person,” Uggams said at the time.
Cardell originally planned to stage “Gypsy” in June 2020, just before the pandemic shutdown. The long-delayed production finally opened Friday night to enthusiastic response, but not without some scuttle. Lee has even gone toe-to-toe with one of her own friends who asked, “Wait … isn’t that a White woman?”
Yes, she was. Rose Thompson Hovick was the very real, domineering mother of Gypsy Rose Lee and Dainty June Hovick. And her inherent Whiteness was a key weapon in how she managed to bully their way into achieving some small measure of stardom.
Lee is an inescapably proud Black woman. “And I can’t play Rose as a White woman – because I am not a White woman,” she said.
“I am playing Rose the way I see her. And I see her as an overbearing mother who wanted to be a star, and now she wants her child to be a star. Whether you are red, White, Black or blue – that could be any mother.”
For much of the past decade, Lee has been referred to as “Denver’s First Lady of Song.” She’s divorced now, and that, she said, has made her both a stronger woman and a better actor. “That experience has had a lot to do with who I am as an actor now, and it has really informed the character,” she said. “I love challenges, and I feel like this one has really stretched me.”
When audiences leave the Vintage Theater, Lee said, “More than anything, I hope that my talent speaks for itself. I want people to believe that I was able to sing the role, and play the role – and that I was hired for that reason, regardless of my skin color.”
But part of the challenge of any actor playing any role, Lee said, is getting the audience to look beyond the actor they see going in and eventually come to fully see the character instead. That might mean Vintage Theatre giving a Black actor (Camryn Nallah Torres) the rare opportunity to play Cinderella this past January. But it also means suspending disbelief in areas that go beyond race, such as film audiences who go to movies with universally recognizable stars like Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X, Gary Busey as Buddy Holly or Angela Bassett as Tina Turner. “Regardless of what you thought going in,” Lee said, “You left all of those movies thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I just saw Malcolm X, Buddy Holly and Tina Turner.’ I want people to leave ‘Gypsy’ thinking they just saw ‘Rose,’ not a Black actor playing Rose.”
But then again – if audiences leave “Gypsy” thinking about some of the troubling contradictions between Lee’s race and the character she is playing, all the better.
If audiences think, “Wait a minute: A Black woman of the time would not have even been allowed inside that theater, through the front door or the back” – all the better. If they realize, “Wait a minute. Black performers of the time were largely relegated to the demeaning, racially segregated Chitlin’ Circuit” – all the better. “What was that all about?” is a conversation we should all be having, and if it was seeing a Black actor playing Rose that brings it up, then – all the better.
What’s often missed in conversations about color and casting is that storytelling itself is an invented artifice. Full stop. Every creative team gets to create the rules of their story as they see fit. Some grumbled when Lin-Manuel Miranda created a world in which actors of color play the nation’s White founding fathers, without realizing: In the world that Miranda has created, Alexander Hamilton IS a character of color. George Washington IS a Black character. It’s also not 1776. And guess what? The real Rose has been dead for 68 years. And when you leave “Gypsy,” you will be walking out onto Colfax Avenue, not out from a burlesque house in Wichita.
And if you really want to be a stickler for authenticity, here’s a little fact about Rose Thompson Hovick that you’ll never learn from watching ‘Gypsy’: She was a lesbian, she may have been responsible for the deaths of three people, and she stood trial for murder. The point?
“It would be great for folks to keep in mind that the original title of this musical was ‘Gypsy: A Fable,’” Cardell said. It’s theater. It’s all make believe.
In 2022, we should all be thankful for the opportunity to see classic stories that have been performed exactly the same way over decades in a new and different light. Especially a story that, otherwise, has no particular reason for being told in 2022.
Rose has had her turn. At this moment in local theater history, it’s Mary Louise Lee’s turn.
“What we are talking about is a new time and a new day of opportunity,” she said.