This review was originally published by OnstageNTX on April 26, 2022 by Jan Farrington.
Singer/actress/playwright/community healer Denise Lee is telling us exactly who she is: “A mother…a woman…a Black woman…a 60-year-old Black woman (she gives us a look)…a cute 60-year-old Black woman.” She turned 60 last year, if we want to get technical—but who can throw a party in the middle of a pandemic?
So here and now, onstage at Circle Theatre, she celebrates those 60 years with a one-woman show, Denise Lee: Pressure Makes Diamonds—taking a look back, taking pride in all she’s become.
And it’s grand.
Most of Lee’s show, a mix of song and storytelling, is set in a backstage space (full of details from set designer Donald Jordan), and done in what feels like real time. For almost the entire hour of the show we are together behind the scenes as she prepares for a concert or cabaret appearance—unpacking a bag of gear, setting pictures on the dressing tables, changing clothes. She is casual, open, and very vulnerable, talking to us about being the shy “little sister” type in school, auditioning for parts in plays she wasn’t “white” enough to get, finding a few bucks on the sidewalk when she was almost broke. She’s proud of her two grown daughters, of her independence, of her ability to shake it off, put on her “big girl panties” and get right out there again.
It’s all done with great honesty and humor (she swings a big plastic baseball bat during a gleeful “I’m Sorry” song to an ex-flame), and a nicely varied mix of songs from the gospel, R&B, pop and rock charts, among them Oleta James “I’ve Got to Sing My Song,” Nikki Giovanni’s triumphant song-poem “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why),” Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Regina Belle’s “If I Could.” Designer Brian McDonald keeps the sound quality crystal-clear.
It takes, Lee says, three billion years of pressure to make a diamond—and she uses the “qualities” of these precious stones (color, cut, carats, clarity) as a way to see her life. And when she appears (bejeweled and gowned by designer Bruce Coleman, and theatrically lit by Adam Chamberlin) as the “diva” we’ve been waiting for, we know the years of courage, hard work, and love it took to get there.
Monique Midgette directs the show (she and Ms. Lee co-wrote the script), which premiered last year at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. Music director Norman Williams plays a fine keyboard, with David Brashier on guitars, Lawrence “Peebody” Ferrell on drums, and Nigel Rivers on bass—and they’re exactly the versatile and lively back-up Lee needs to show off her gem of a voice.
Ms. Lee can fill a stage or cabaret to overflowing with her sound alone: rich and resonant, soaring or beautifully controlled. But if she couldn’t sing a lick, she’d still be plenty worth watching, as a funny and fierce reporter of all it takes to keep a woman on her feet and moving forward through the joys and troubles of life—and into her “Diamond Decade.”
WHEN: Through April 30
WHERE: Circle Theatre, 230 W. Fourth Street, Fort Worth