2 January 2020 07:54PM
The Valatie Community Theater will be presenting its first-ever original production, “Ella The Ungovernable,” on the weekend of Friday, February 14, and Saturday, February 15, at 3031 Main Street in Valatie, NY. This play by David McDonald is about 15 year-old Ella Fitzgerald’s incarceration and escape from Hudson, NY’s, Training School For Girls in 1933.
“Ella The Ungovernable,” a play about 15 year-old Ella Fitzgerald’s incarceration at Hudson, NY’s Training School For Girls in 1933, will be debuting the weekend of February 14 and 15 at the Valatie Community Theater in Valatie, NY, at 3031 Main Street in Valatie. In case of sellout or inclement weather, the following weekend of February 21 and 22 as well.
Playwright David McDonald first learned about the Ella Fitzgerald story several years ago after reading about it in Hudson’s Prison Public Memory Project. It seems that, back in 1933, a then-unknown young girl named Ella Fitzgerald was incarcerated at Hudson, NY’s, Training School For Girls. This was before Ella ever sprung to fame and very few details are known about her incarceration close to 90 years ago. What is known is the following:
When Ella Fitzgerald was fifteen, she was living in Yonkers with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Then the mother died, leaving young Ella at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, a man whom, historians have suggested, may have abused Ella.
Ella escaped the abusive situation by fleeing to the streets of Harlem, where she took a job as a lookout for one of Harlem’s famous bordellos.
She was eventually caught by the police and transported to The New York Training School For Girls in Hudson, NY, where, rumors have it, physical and sexual abuse were also commonplace.
Less than a year later, she escaped back to Harlem. No one knows exactly how she did it.
About two weeks after her escape, she was talked into trying out at the first-ever Amateur Night at The Apollo Theater, where, against all odds, she won.
Even crazier? Orchestra leader Chick Webb was sitting in the audience that night, and was able to convince the State of New York to parole Ella Fitzgerald to his orchestra. Months later, they had their first worldwide hit with “A Tisket, A Tasket.”
When McDonald first heard the story, he recognized its allegorical power immediately:
“On a surface level, it was probably the greatest allegory for centuries of African American incarceration I had ever heard,” McDonald says. “Plus, it’s the story of people being trapped with no visible means of escape. I feel that this is the way half of the country feels living under the Donald Trump regime.”
McDonald continues: “Over the last few years, I have wondered why we haven’t had protest songs or works of art like we did in the sixties, like ‘Blowing In The Wind.’ Was it simply because they were not being written, or not being played? I set out in my mind to give the majority of us Americans — the ones who are feeling marginalized — a project to inspire and galvanize the people. The message of the play is: ‘Don’t ever give up.’ It’s meant to give us hope across the country that things, one day, will get better, if only we don’t give up.”
The genesis of the project is an interesting story in and of itself. Over the last 15 years, McDonald has primarily been known over the years as a documentary filmmaker, having directed the feature length documentaries “Woodstock Revisited” and “The Mystery Of Creativity.” He has also done numerous short form videos for clients such as The NY Times and Chronogram Magazine on Hudson Valley subjects such as Olana, The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, and The Hudson River wine-growing region.
“I am a huge fan of local history and I generally choose subjects that are close to me, such as the early history of the Woodstock arts colony or Marc Chagall’s exile in the Hudson Valley in the late 1940s.”
When he first discovered the story of Ella Fitzgerald’s incarceration, the initial idea was to make a dramatic film about it, shot at the original Hudson locations where everything had transpired in 1933. After trying in vain to raise funds for such a film, a friend of McDonald’s suggested he start the project as a play first.
“I fell in love with that idea immediately for a variety of reasons,” recalls McDonald. “First, I love the idea of involving the community in a creative project.”
“As artists, a lot of us face the dichotomy of doing most of our work while in private while hoping our art reaches the broadest swath of the public as possible,” says McDonald.
“Starting the Ella Fitzgerald project as a community-based theatrical project is a way of taking my art and making it art for the people, involving the community in every aspect of the production, from acting to lighting to staging, makeup, costumes and promotion.”
McDonald first started directing the theatrical production in Hudson in June of 2019, doing casting and rehearsals in a gallery on Warren Street and at The Hudson Area Library. Some of the notable cast members include Hudson Alderwoman Tiffany Garriga playing Ella’s wicked Aunt Edna and WGXC news reader Philip Grant playing Apollo Master of Ceremonies Ralph Cooper.
Over the course of the summer, the production morphed and morphed again, with several of the main actresses coming and going due to other commitments, summer camp, and family trips.
“Our production sort of ground to a halt at the end of the summer,” says McDonald. We had three actresses playing Ella in three months, and I started thinking it would just be easier to cast and mount this production in New York City. So I started to reach out to theaters there.”
One day, McDonald received a very unexpected response, this from Crystal Field, the legendary founder of Theater For The New City in Greenwich Village. She offered McDonald the theater’s main stage for the month of January, albeit with one small caveat: “She could help us with everything, from casting to rehearsal space to providing us with theater techs — the only thing she could not help us with was funding.”
After spending several weeks trying to manically network in the theater production community, McDonald eventually realized that getting the production up and running in New York City by January, 2020, might be a technical impossibility: “It was quite a weird position for me to be in,” says McDonald. “On the one hand, we had an offer from a famous Off-Broadway theater — I would never have imagined anything like that happening. On the other hand, this offer was only contingent on us raising tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of weeks.”
After exhausting what he felt to be his fundraising capabilities, McDonald was having lunch one day at the Valatie Diner, when he noticed tons of kids going in and out of the Valatie Theater across the street.
“Just on a whim, I decided to cross the street and see what was going on there. It was one of the neatest surprises I ever got.”
There, McDonald ran into George Phelps, who was running rehearsal on behalf of his wife Tanya that day for a kids production of Frozen Jr., the musical.
“It was the proverbial light bulb moment,” says McDonald. “Here I was, deciding which next steps to take with my play, and the solution presented itself, right out of the blue.”
As it turns out, Tanya Phelps, the director of Frozen, works with a theater group called Master Class Performing Arts, which presents youth musicals up and down the Hudson Valley. She also has a wildly popular dance studio for kids on Fairview Avenue in Hudson called The Columbia Elite AllStars.
David mentioned to Tanya the difficulty he was having finding replacements for the two major roles in his play, that of a young Ella Fitzgerald and her best friend and cellmate Alice, and Tanya said that two of her students would be ideal for the two parts. Soon David and Tanya were collaborating on ideas, casting and venues, the primary of which was the self-same Valatie Community Theater.
“I asked Tanya if the theater in Valatie might be interested in trying out a new thing, presenting a new play of original material, rather than children’s versions of Broadway musicals. She introduced me to their board.”
On a snowy night in December, Mr. McDonald made his pitch to the theater board. The board apparently liked what they heard. After all sides concluded that they shared the same priorities, the Valatie Community Theater decided to expand its original vision and run its first-ever original play.
There are risks involved for all sides. For Valatie, it’s the risk of running their first-ever original production, smack dab in the middle of winter, snowstorms and all. For Tanya Phelps, it’s a step into dramatic production (albeit with three songs), rather than the light musical fare she usually produces. For McDonald, there are concerns about population density and demographic.
“The first stop for ‘Ella The Ungovernable’ was obviously going to be New York City, with its much larger population as a whole and African American population in specific” says McDonald. “Now, here we are doing an African American play in a primarily white farming community whose closest large urban area is over twenty miles away, in February. Are we crazy? We shall see!” McDonald laughs.
For McDonald, all the risks involved are just par for the course. “For me, writing the play in the first place was a risk. You can’t be sure that people are even going to like it. Then there’s the risk of mounting the play for production, finding the right actors and the right team work with.”
If I had ever really thought about the odds of my own success with this play, I probably would have never had the courage to write it. The world is always going to doubt you. It’s always going to put up barriers. It’s always going to say, ‘no, you can’t do this..’
“But that’s precisely the point of why I wrote the play, and while I am moving forward with it relentlessly, no matter what. Because, If I’m telling the audience, ‘Don’t ever give up,’ then I can’t really give up either, you know what I mean? So the production is actually mirroring the play, and vice a versa.”
To buy tickets in advance for either show, please go here:
The “Ella The Ungovernable” Facebook Event page is here: