As Broadway's Ma Rainey, Theresa Merritt Changes Her Tune and Belts the Blues

updated 11/26/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

She looks like a float in the Tournament of Roses parade. All decked out in a pink sequined gown, waving a dyed-to-match fan made of ostrich plumes, she croons a sexy, lowdown song that delivers more double entendres than Mae West reviewing the troops. This grand, imposing figure is Ma Rainey, queen of the blues (c'mon, Bessie, she taught you everything you know) at a 1927 recording session in Chicago. The title character of the much-acclaimed Broadway drama Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is famous for her bellowing voice and black-bottom dance with its sinuous hip movements. The straight-laced actress who plays the role finds this hot mama a real cool change of pace from her own wholesome image. "Ma's a nice, gritty role to get into," says Theresa Merritt, 62, who onstage talks like a trucker, flaunts a lesbian girlfriend and barks orders as if she were a drill sergeant. No wonder that when she was offered the part, Merritt had serious reservations. "I asked my four kids, 'Would you be ashamed to bring your friends to see it because your mother's up there?' They said, 'No, that's the way things are.' Later, two of them came to see it. Afterward they said: 'Ma, I didn't know you could cuss like that!' "

Like Ma Rainey in her heyday, Merritt is almost but not quite a star. Unlike Ma, fame came relatively late in her career. Most fans remember her from the TV series That's My Mama, which ran for one and a half seasons beginning in 1974. "I used to watch those sitcoms, look at my husband and ask: 'Do you think I'll ever get out there to do one of those things?' Bless God, didn't I get out there," Merritt says. Some critics felt the TV show should have been called That's My Stereotype—but not Merritt. "You know you get a lot of flack from a lot of people about the things you do," Merritt says. "Black people do. I don't know if white people do. I guess it's the imbalance of roles. You get it for being in the kitchen and being the wrong model. But it was my kitchen, not someone else's, and I had the say-so in my house."

Merritt's four bedroom home is in Queens, N.Y., where she lives with her husband of 39 years, Benjamin Hines, a kitchen supervisor for Michael's Pub, a Manhattan restaurant. Like her marriage, Merritt's show business career has been a long-running affair. She's been a part of the entertainment world for 40 years and entertains no thoughts of giving it up. "Don't talk to me about retiring," she says. Observes Ma Rainey co-star Charles S. Dutton, "To be in this business for 40 years and not be bitter is something."

Though trained in classical voice, Merritt never opted for opera. "I didn't see a future for blacks in opera," she admits. Through the years she worked some decidedly unclassical gigs: as a backup singer for Jackie (Lonely Teardrop) Wilson ("I call them the ooh-ahooh-shoobie-doobie-da-bop-wah songs"), as part of a folksinging troupe with Harry Belafonte and as a cast member of such Broadway musicals as Golden Boy and The Wiz. "My life's a broken record," she says. "I forget all the stuff I did."

Theresa's mother died when she was 2, and her father, a Philadelphia laborer, sent her to live with an aunt and uncle. "I guess we were poor in a way," Merritt says. "We had a few rags but we were always clean and we never had to ask for anything. We had a lot of pride along with our poorness." She started singing as a kid in the church choir—but not gospel. "In the Baptist Church we weren't allowed to sing gospel because the music's too whirly, too many curlicues on it." On local radio, she also performed on The Colored Kiddie Hour, she recalls. Hoping to become the next Marian Anderson, she won a scholarship to study music at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, then furthered her studies at Temple University. She got a break in 1942 when she auditioned for entrepreneur Billy Rose, who cast her on Broadway in the all-black production of Carmen Jones, which ran some two and a half years. "We were innovators," Merritt says. "It was about 15 years later that the first black went to the Metropolitan Opera."

As a $5-a-week boarder in a 138th Street brownstone, Merritt got a lively education. "Harlem was Harlem then," she says. Eubie Blake and other entertainers also resided at her boarding house. "I was the youngest person in there and they loved me because they could sit down and spin their yarns about what they had done." She adds quietly, "Everybody in that house is dead now."

Her first starring role on Broadway hasn't altered Merritt's homey habits. She still does her housework, takes the subway to and from the theater and sings in the neighborhood church. Life for a star is no different, she says, "except you have to get up earlier." After four decades in the business, it's a price she's more than willing to pay.
Stage

Ex-convict Charles S. Dutton goes straight—to Broadway

Fate sometimes finds a way of saying, "Let's talk." For Charles S. Dutton, 33, who is enjoying critical and audience raves for his role as an angry trumpet blower in Ma Rainey, the moment came 10 years ago in the form of an ice pick in his neck. The setting was the Maryland Correctional Institution, where Dutton was serving eight years for his part in a prison riot. The incident "was over something silly," Dutton recalls, "but the wound took two years to heal and it almost killed me. I had more wires in me than a radio."

Following that brush with mortality, Dutton, then a seventh-grade dropout, turned around more abruptly than a bumper car on an oil slick and eventually landed a coveted spot, at age 29, in the Yale School of Drama. "My prison profile indicated that I was incorrigible, delinquent and defective," he admits. "I more or less acted out my profile. But after I was stabbed I decided I wasn't going to make a career out of stupidity anymore. Life is too short to waste behind bars."

Dutton's seemingly one-way trip down the wrong highway of life began as a kid in a housing project in Baltimore. "My nickname was Roc," says Charles, who was one of three children. "I got into a lot of trouble living up to it. I just thought there was more happening on a street corner than in the classroom." When he was just 3, Dutton's parents separated, and he lived with his mother, who cleaned houses. "There were no criminals or violence on either side of my family until me. I would tell my mom, 'I have to go through something. I really feel it and I'm going to make you proud of me someday.' " He blames no one for his wasted years. "I always knew what I was getting into. I'm not blaming society for a single iota of the trouble I got into. I knew the consequences. I knew the dilemmas. I decided to do what I did and I paid the price."

Big trouble erupted in 1968 on a Friday night in the ghetto. Dutton, then 17, was engaged in a fist fight with another street tough. "I was winning," Dutton contends, "when he just backed off and pulled a knife. I didn't know he was stabbing me until I felt my body getting wet, not from perspiration but from blood. I wrestled the knife from him and stabbed him." His adversary died four months later.

Dutton got 18 months at M.C.I, in Hagerstown. He was paroled after seven, then sent back for possession of a deadly weapon—a pistol. That offense got him three more years, with eight extra tacked on for participating in a prison riot and assaulting a guard. "I was involved in the riot, but I didn't assault a guard," Dutton says defensively. But by his own admission he was a tough inmate. He spent four and a half years on and off in maximum security and isolation holes. "I was very bitter," he says. "I spent three years as a total knucklehead. They'd say, 'Dutton, you're going to work in the metal shop' and I'd say, 'No.' I was anti-everything."

Acting became a new fascination for Dutton after he read Douglas Turner Ward's play, Day of Absence. "Even as a kid, I felt I was carved out for something! I thought it was boxing or a sport at first." In prison, he enlisted about eight other inmates to help put on the Ward play. It was done in white face, using shoe polish. "I formed the drama group and I was the despot," Dutton says. The ice pick attack put an end to the stage group, but the joy he felt in performing stayed with him. During his painful recovery Dutton came to terms with himself: "I decided to forget about being a career criminal and live life." He passed a high-school equivalency test and joined the college prison program. For 18 months he was allowed to attend nearby Hagerstown Junior College, returning to his cell by 7 o'clock each night.

In 1976 he was released early from prison, but found life on the outside difficult. "I was trying to play catch-up socially and sexually," he says. "I wanted a lot quickly and I realized you can't do it that way." Deciding to channel his energies into schooling again, Dutton then enrolled at Towson State University in Maryland, and got involved in its theater program. To support himself, Dutton then organized a CETA project and taught Shakespeare to "10 so-called incorrigible kids from local high schools—11 th graders who read at the sixth-grade level." The chairman of the drama department convinced Dutton to audition for Yale upon graduation, and "when I found out I was accepted I couldn't stop grinning," he says.

Dutton found himself in the right place at the right time. He was chosen to play Levee for a staged reading of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in 1982, and he repeated the role last spring at the Yale Repertory Theatre. The part required him to play a trumpet onstage, but that was just another obstacle to overcome. He mastered the instrument in about eight weeks and performs onstage. "At first I didn't know the front end from the back. My problem was I wanted to be Louis Armstrong overnight," Dutton says.

Ma Rainey provides an eerie parallel to Dutton's own life: In the drama's climactic scene, his character stabs a man to death. Whatever reverberations the scene may have for Dutton, he is keeping them private. "It's just a role," he says matter-of-factly. But he noted right after the drama's Broadway opening, "I relate to Levee. He's a guy waving a knife at God, calling everyone a fool but himself. When I was younger I thought I was real slick, that I knew it all."

His prison past no longer haunts Dutton. Acting "is in my blood now," says Dutton, who lives on New York's Upper West Side with his girlfriend, Angela Bassett, 26, an actress he met at Yale. "We've hung in through some tough times together and I love her dearly," he says. Theresa Merritt, who plays Dutton's stage mama, offers her approval: "Anyone who will start out his life again is all right with me." Dutton puts it more simply: "I'm just proud of the fact that I'm still alive." Future plans include an autobiography. He already has the title: "From Jail to Yale," he says, surprised that anyone would have to ask.

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