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McKee, Lonette 1952—

Lonette McKee 1952


At a Glance

Mckee Defines her Race

Difficulty Finding Roles

Big Broadway Debut

The Theater Can Wait!


In the age of PCs, MTV, and MS-DOS its superficially easy to see Show Boat as a dated cultural artifact. Those who succumb to this trendy temptation deserve to be digitized, said Jack Kroll in Newsweek. Cynics and youth-cult types may yawn at the idea of reviving a nearly 70-year-old musical, but othersrejoice. When a $10 million, Canadian-produced revival of the 1927 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical steamed into Broadways huge Gershwin Theatre in the fall of 1994 it attracted 14,689 paying customers in its first full week of performances, the second highest weekly total ticket sales in Broadway history. The sumptuous production drew high praise, much of it for costar Lonette McKee. Without question the most magnetic performer is the stunning Lonette McKee.... Ms. McKee sings only two songs, Cant Help Lovin DatMan and Bill5, and her languid, throaty Bill is, in this sweeping show, the only truly intimate moment. One friend of mine cried during the song because she found it so moving, and another cried because he realized that was the last he was going to hear from Lonette McKee for the rest of the evening, said Nancy Franklin of the New Yorker. Nelson Pressley of the Washington Times noted, Miss McKees emotional, unglitzy blues nearly stops the show.

When the revival of Show Boat premiered in Toronto in the autumn of 1993, black groups protested. They felt the classic musical perpetuated negative stereotypes of people of African ancestry. The proudly African American Lonette McKee disagrees. Its crazy. Its not true, she told the Orlando Sentinel. They might be thinking of the original book [by Edna Ferber], but they havent seen our show. They think that black people are being portrayed in a less than favorable light, and I dont know what theyre basing it on. McKee should know. This is the second time she has taken on the role of Julie LaVerne, a light-skinned black woman who passes for white in order to work as a singer on a turn-of-the-century Mississippi River showboat. In 1983 McKee played Julie in a well-received Houston Grand Opera production that ran on Broadway for several months. She was the first black woman to play the part of Julie in a major production (legendary singer Helen Morgan originated the role in 1927 and appeared in the 1936 film version; Ava Gardner took the role in the 1951 film). Comparing her later portrayal of Julie to her earlier work, McKee told John Istel of American Theatre, I wanted to make her

At a Glance

Born c. 1952, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Lonnie (a bricklayer) and Dorothy McKee; married Leo Compton, 1983 (divorced, 1990).

Career: Theater appearances on Broadway include The First, 1981; Showboat, 1983, 199495; appearances off-Broadway include Lady Day at Emersons Bar and Grill, 198687. Other stage appearances include concert with Mel Torme and Diane Schuur, Carnegie Hall, New York, 1987; and cabaret act, The Ballroom, New York, 1987. Film appearances include Sparkle, 1976; Which Way is Up?, 1977; Cuba, 1979; The Cotton Club, 1984; Brewsters Millions, 1985; Round Midnight, 1986; Gardens of Stone, 1987; Jungle Fever, 1991; and Malcolm X, 1992.

Television appearances include series The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters, syndicated, 197274; mini-series The Women of Brewster Place, ABC, 1989; and Queen, CBS, 1993; and films Dangerous Passion, ABC, 1990. Recordings include Words and Music, Warner Brothers, 1978; and Natural Love, Forty Acres and a Mule, 1992.

Awards: Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award nomination for best supporting actress in a musical for Showboat, 1983; Drama Desk nomination for Lady Day at Emersons Bar and Grill, 1987.

Addresses: HomeJJppex East Side, New York City. AgeniGersh Agency, 130 W. 42nd St., 24th Floor, New York, NY 1Ô036

a little blacker. I wanted to play her more realistically. Not as Julie trying to pass as white but just plain Julie--as she is.

Mckee Defines her Race

Similar to her on-stage character, McKee has had trouble with people not accepting her as she is. Born in Detroit, the second of three daughters of an African American father and a Swedish American mother, the race issue has plagued McKee all her life. In the Detroit ghetto where I grew up, I wasnt accepted by white kids or black. I just didnt fit in.... Nowl consider myself black, because Ive never been given the same treatment, respect, or opportunities that blond, blue-eyed, white girls have gotten, she told People in 1986. As a toddler, McKee sat down at an upright piano and began singing and composing her own songs to the astonishment of her unmusical family. By the time she was eight, McKee was singing professionally--and at age 14, her recording of the Motown style song Stop, Dont Worry About It, with Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band, was a local Detroit hit. McKee, whose parents were divorced, began hanging around with a lot of older musicians and seemed headed for trouble. With her mothers blessing, she dropped out of high school at age 16 and moved to Los Angeles to live with her older sister.

On the West Coast, the statuesque McKee worked at various jobs (including a stint as a secretary to Bill Cosby) while pursuing an acting and singing career. In 1972 she landed role as one of The Soul Sisters on televisions The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters and two years later recorded a gospel-tinged pop album for a small Los Angeles record label that later went bankrupt. McKees big break came when she was cast in the 1976 movie Sparkle, the story of a girl group similar to The Supremes. She beat out five hundred other aspirants for the part of the groups lead singer. Sparkle, which costarred Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas, was not a hit when first released, though it has since become something of a cult film.

McKees performance as a doomed, drug-addicted singer garnered many favorable reviews. Pauline Kael of the New Yorker said McKee lays waste to the movie, which makes the mistake of killing her off in the first half ... she has the sexual brazenness that screen stars such as Susan Hayward and Ava Gardner had in their youth. Stardom for McKee seemed immanent. I think Ive always known that Im pretty, and Ive played against it, a youthful McKee told Mademoiselle a few months after Sparkle was released. People take one look at me and say she just couldnt be talented, she just couldnt be bright. But Ill tell you, I dont let nothin happen. I make things happen.

Difficulty Finding Roles

At this time McKee considered her mixed race heritage an advantage since she as sumed it would allow her to play both black and white roles. She eventually realized the opposite was true. For white roles she was too black, for black roles too white. An older and wiser McKee told the New York Times in 1987, I had little knowledge at that time of how difficult it would be to find roles for somebody like me. I came in on a high like Sparkle and then turned around and had years of no work after that. McKees private life also went through a difficult period after Sparkle. She dated Warren Beatty and screenwriter Robert Towne but was more seriously involved with abusive boyfriends and experimented with cocaine. McKee became a health-conscious vegetarian, though she has not kicked a cigarette habit. Im compulsive, so I have to do something slightly self-destructive or Im not happy, she explained to Charisse Jones of the New York Times.

The word that best describes McKees film career is underutilized. Elvis Mitchell wrote in Film Comment, Hollywood is guilty of a shameful neglect of an engagingly friendly, but lusty presence... McKee is better than so much of what she gets. Not girlish and insubstantial, shes dynamic and indestructible. McKee played Richard Pryors love interest in Which Way is Up? (1977) and his accountant in Brewsters Millions (1985). In Cuba (1979), directed by Richard Lester and costarring Sean Connery, McKee had a supporting role as a cigar factory worker who aspires to a better life. It seemed that McKees had a second chance at stardom with The Cotton Club (1984), Francis Ford Coppolas $50 million saga of the legendary Harlem nightclub of the 1920s and 1930s. McKee played Lila Rose Oliver, a light-skinned torch singer who passes for white trying to get a job on Broadway. Expense and production troubles made The Cotton Club one of the most talked about films of the early 1980s, but when it finally reached theaters it got un enthusiastic reviews and audiences stayed away.

After The Cotton Club everyone said that this was it, that I was going to be a big star. And it didnt happen, McKee told the New York Times. McKee again played a singer in Round Midnight (1986), based on the life of jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Written and directed by Frenchman Bertrand Tavernier, this tale of the Paris jazz scene in 1950s was well-received. McKee worked a second time for Coppola in Gardens of Stone (1987), a story of the army unit assigned to Arlington National Cemetery during the Vietnam War (she played an aide to a senator). McKee has also been in two Spike Lee films--Jungle Fever (1991), in which she was Wesley Snipes betrayed wife, and MalcolmX(1992). Shes a great actress. It amazed me that she wasnt working more, Lee told People.

Big Broadway Debut

McKees Broadway debut came in The First, a musical version of the life of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play major league baseball. She played Robinsons wife Rachel. The First, with music by Bob Brush and lyrics by Martin Charnin, opened at the Martin Beck Theatre in November of 1981. Though the role of Rachel Robinson hardly exists in the script, the striking Lonette McKee manages to fill her with vitality and warmth, wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times. McKee got good notice, but the show closed after a month. I think its racism by the critics, McKee told Jet. I dont think they want to see a good Black piece prevail, especially not anything with this much depth... theres a heavy, heavy story behind Jackies life and I think they dont want to deal with that.

McKee was soon back on Broadway in the Houston Grand Opera production of Showboat, which opened at the Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre in April 1983. The lovely Julie of Lonette McKee is simply terrific, said Clive Barnes in the New York Post When Showboat played a pre-Broadway run in San Francisco, McKee met Leo Compton, a youth counselor working part-time as the Theatres doorman. A week after the meeting, Compton proposed marriage and they wed in February, 1983. The union lasted seven years.

In Lady Day at Emerson s Bar and Grill, a one-woman show about singer Billie Holiday, McKee tackled the most challenging role to date in her career. The play, by Lanie Robertson, took place at a seedy Philadelphia saloon a few months before heroin-addicted Holidays death in 1959. Every day was therapy, and I thank God that Andre [director Andre Ernotte] was so sensitive and so gentle with me and with her, the whole subject, McKee told E. R. Shipp of the New York Times. Lady Day at Emersons Bar and Grill had a four-week run at off-Broadways tiny Vineyard Theatre in June 1986. Enthusiastic response brought about a reopening at the larger Westside Arts Theatre in September 1986 where it stayed for several months.

A long-time Holiday fan, McKee was intimidated at first by the thought of portraying the great singer. To prepare for the role McKee surrounded her herself with photos of Holiday and with gardenias, the singers trademark flower. There was no attempt at imitation.

Miss McKee is as engaging a performer as everyone has said she is, but, as far as I could tell, she bears little resemblance-physical, temperamental, or vocal-to Billie Holiday, and perhaps the best thing to do is to forget Miss Holiday and her glorious recordings and just enjoy the show for what it is, wrote Edith Oliver in the New Yorker.

McKee left Lady Day at Emersons Bar and Grill a few weeks before her contract expired because the demanding role had taken such a toll on her vocal chords she could no longer sing. After recuperating, McKee mounted a cabaret act at Manhattans Ballroom club in September of 1987. She was brought back by popular demand the following month. The movies and the theater have only skimmed the surface of her protean talents, wrote Stephen Holden of McKees cabaret performance in the New York Times. Equally at ease performing pop-soul, swing and classic theater songs-all with a sense of dramatic command that is decisive but never overblown.

The Theater Can Wait!

McKees television work includes the mini-series, The Women of Brewster Place, produced and costarring Oprah Winfrey, and the Alex Haley family saga Queen. She has also made appearances on Spenser: For Hire and The Equalizer. Recalling a guest shot on Miamivice, McKee told People, Don Johnson kissed me goodbye on the mouth and gave me the flu, but who can complain.

Since 1991 McKee has been in a relationship with musician Bryant McNeil who is in the rock band Jim Crow. They share a Manhattan brownstone decorated with antiques and African art. She and McNeil have started their own recording company, Flat Daddy Records. We want to put music out there that goes beyond cheap sex and idiotic violence, McKee told Raoul Dennis of the New York Times. An animal rights advocate who has several pet birds, McKee has determined that a portion of the companys profits will go towards establishing wildlife sanctuaries in urban areas. Physically challenged people are another of McKees concerns (her younger sister, Carol, has cerebral palsy).

The success of Showboat has put McKee yet again on the brink of major stardom. Film, television, and theater offers are pouring in. McKee is not in a hurry to dive into a new project. I would much rather be alone, writing at home, than on stage with a bunch of makeup on and a heavy costume, she explained to Charisse Jones of the New York Times. McKee is writing scripts featuring parts for African American actors. She is also at work on a novel, Queen of the Birds (the title comes from McKees passion for nursing sick or injured birds, then releasing them back into nature). Its kind of the story of my life, McKee told People. Ive struggled. But these hardships have made me stronger and more spiritual... I know it will be all right.


American Theatre, February 1995, pp. 4041.

Film Comment, March/April 1985, pp. 4041.

Jet, December 10, 1981, p. 61; December 24, 1984, pp. 5862; June 30, 1986, p. 55; October 13, 1986, pp. 5254; March 20, 1989, pp. 5860; July 1, 1991, p. 65; October 31, 1994, pp. 3639.

Mademoiselle, April 1977, pp. 199200, 230, 233.

Ms., December 1986, p. 18.

New Republic, July 29, 1991, pp. 2829.

Newsweek, October 20, 1986, pp. 79, 81; October 10, 1994, p. 77.

New York, June 23, 1986, p. 59; June 17, 1991, pp. 7678; October 17, 1994, pp. 6869.

New Yorker, September 27, 1976, pp. 127129; September 29, 1986, p. 129; May 18, 1987, pp. 8485; October 17, 1994, pp. 111112.

New York Post, April 25, 1983, p. 17.

New York Times, November 18, 1981, p. C25; February 21, 1987, p. AIO; February 22, 1987, p. C6; September24, 1987,p. C16; October23, 1987,p. C27; February 7, 1993, Section 3, p. 11; December 29, 1994, pp. Cl, C8.

Orlando Sentinel, October 17, 1993, p. D4;November 27, 1994, p. Fl.

People, November 3, 1986, pp. 5357; November 28, 1994, pp. 159160.

Time, October 6, 1986, p. 94; October 10, 1994, p. 80.

Variety, July 8, 1987, p. 74.

Washington Times, October 4, 1994, p. C14.

Mary C. Kalfatovic

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