In a recent article in the NYC-based Bistro Awards News, Why Is Color Mostly Absent from Cabaret Stages? Lisa Jo Segolla writes “. . . cabaret is decidedly monochrome. Cabaret stages and audiences are populated predominantly by white folks. Why is this? What are the ramifications of such racial uniformity? Is anyone doing anything about it?”
Our Managing Director, David Stephens, gave a resounding yes to “doing something about it.” After a career as a magician and clown, he followed his spouse, a cabaret performer, into the art form as a singer. But he was often perplexed and sometimes disturbed to be the only person of color in the cabaret, either in the audience or onstage. He knew his friends and fellow Cabaret artists Arlene Armstrong, Patrick Davis and Evelyn Danner had been talking among themselves about performing together for years and he was looking forward to joining them and planning a show together. When he read Segolla’s article, he was moved to action.
He took the issue to Claudia Hommel, a founder of Chicago Cabaret Professionals and director of the ongoing song interpretation workshop called SongShop. David points out that SongShop and its concert productions, SongShop Live, have been a touchstone for diversity among its performers. In large measure, “this is the result of encouraging a wide-range of repertoire (not to mention welcoming all kinds of singers.”
Claudia’s response was like-minded and enthusiastic, and together David and she immediately pulled into the conversation other SongShop veterans like Kim Mann and Vivian Beckford as well as supporters like Margaret Murphy-Webb. They turned to SongShop’s umbrella nonprofit organization, Working In Concert, to become the home for this new initiative.
From the outset David thought “our mission should be to showcase Black performers, educate new audiences about the history of Chicago cabaret as seen through Black eyes, and uplift the repertoire beyond the standard American Songbook.”
David goes on, “With Black Voices in Cabaret, we hope to explore a wide variety of performing styles (Rhythm and Blues, Spoken Word, Soul, Gospel, Jazz, Magic, etc.) and to highlight both new and established performers throughout the Chicago area and beyond. We also plan to engage both audiences and communities who have not been exposed to the art of cabaret with shows, seminars, and other events celebrating the intimacy of live cabaret performance.”
Claudia noted that some of the obstacles to racial equity in our field have been the focus on the so–called Great American Songbook, the perceived tuxedo/gown “requirement”, and the geographic divide between Northside and Southside audiences. “We want to feature performers not yet highlighted, venues not yet discovered, and audiences not yet approached,” she said.