ST. JOSEPH — Nevertheless, Lena Horne persisted.
She didn’t live to see the tumultuous new era of civil rights activism exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement and the Women’s Marches, but given the chance, the Golden Age songstress would likely have marched right along with the protesters.
That’s what Broadway star Syndee Winters believes.
“She would 100 percent have been at the marches. She would probably speak!” Winters laughed. “Though I have a bit of a bias; I think women are amazing creatures. We can do anything.”
Although she never met Horne, Winters has become something of an authority on the woman. It’s a necessity of her job: She steps into Horne’s legendary shoes in her one-woman show “Lena: A Moment with a Lady,” giving her voice to Horne’s iconic hits like “Stormy Weather” and “The Lady is a Tramp.”
The show, which is described as a “play with music,” will light up the stage of the Escher Auditorium at the College of St. Benedict on Feb. 10. Winters, as Horne, will take audiences through five decades of the groundbreaking singer’s life and career.
On curiosity and zoot suits
Winters began her passion project on a dare.
“What was a simple joke between two friends became one of the deepest experiences of my career, and of my art, my craft,” Winters said.
A friend who had staged his own show in a similar vein challenged Winters to think of a vintage artist she might like to portray.
“I was like, ‘Dude, I can do anything you can do!'” Winters laughed.
Inspired by the conversation, she started writing and researching, and, as Winters tells it, “on March 24, 2014, my Lena Horne was born.”
And what about the friend who threw down the gauntlet in the first place? He was there on opening night — he had to be, as Winters surprised him during the process by writing him into the show.
“He had a zoot suit for the ages!” Winters laughed.
Winters has played many women in her remarkable career, most recently (and perhaps most notably) taking turns as all three Schuyler sisters in the smash-hit musical “Hamilton” on Broadway.
But playing Horne presented a unique opportunity: Winters would not only be playing a person from history, but one whose life was documented visually and, of course, via audio. To bring her version of Horne into the world, Winters closely studied the singer’s mannerisms and voice.
“I think paying homage to the essence (is important),” she said. “Lena was a great storyteller in the music that she sang. So merging my energy to the energy that I feel from her, on her records, in her albums, in her songs, is important.”
As Winters portrays Horne at ages 17-65, the show becomes a series of meaningful transitions in age, maturity and experience that inherently posed a challenge.
“Lena had a very strong, very specific voice. Her voice changed over the years, so I feel it’s important to pay attention to that — to pay attention to what she went through, as she matured,” Winters said. “It’s a lot of ground, and a lot of grounding. It has to change. My approach is to be as specific as possible, to try and tell the story as best I can through the eyes of Lena throughout the ages.”
Despite the depth and breadth of knowledge Winters has amassed to play Horne, the actress, singer and dancer doesn’t necessarily feel she has a total understanding of the woman.
“She was a real live person that I don’t know. I can do as much research as I can and still not know,” Winters said. “But I am open to the wonder, to the curiosity, and continuing to learn about her.”
It was that wonder and curiosity that led Winters to discover similarities between herself and Horne, who broke down racial barriers in Hollywood when she signed with MGM in 1942.
“The more I researched Lena Horne, the more I saw some congruence between the things that she has gone through and the challenges I have faced in my life as a young woman of color. But the difference is, she was a pioneer of that,” Winters said. “She was one of the first women to be objectified in the Hollywood era; she built some of the archetypes, she was a reference point. We wanted Lena Horne!”
Horne, who died in 2010, was a four-time Grammy winner, a Tony winner, and a Kennedy Center Honoree. And just Thursday the U.S. Postal Service announced she would be immortalized on the 41st Black Heritage Forever Stamp.
Horne’s life and career was in many ways defined by the era in which she lived, a time where merely existing as a woman or a person of color was audacious. To be both, and to be in Hollywood — successfully in Hollywood, no less — was downright revolutionary.
“As women, we have to endure so much. As women of color, we endure what we’re enduring, and what our significant others are enduring if we’re in a relationship with men of color,” Winters said. “There is so much strength that comes with being a woman that should be taken seriously. And (Horne) took her womanhood very seriously. She took her position in life very seriously. She also used her voice specifically to give voice to people who didn’t have the ability. She was ahead of the curve.”
Throughout her life, Horne leveraged her renowned celebrity to bring attention to the civil rights movement.
During World War II, she refused to perform for audiences in which German POWs were seated in front of African-American servicemen, and instead opted to leave the stage and perform with the Germans behind her. She sued restaurants and theaters for race discrimination, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on anti-lynching laws, and was ultimately blacklisted from Hollywood during the Red Scare because of her political views and social activism.
In speaking with Winters, one senses a great deal of not just admiration, but gratitude to Horne for paving the way to success in show business.
“There’s a line she says, ‘My life has been about surviving. It hasn’t always been about the music, but maybe you can hear it in the music,'” Winters said. “She pours all of her energy, all of her self into what she has done, into her craft, and that comes with great sacrifice. I think her body of work, her legacy — just being who she was and making the choices that she made — set such a precedent.”
“I don’t necessarily have to …” Winters trails off, deep in thought. “The doors have been kicked down, because of her. She set a path for people like me to just … walk.”
In 1963, Horne spoke and performed at the March on Washington on behalf of the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women. Fifteen years later, after spending the majority of her life blocked from major film roles due to her race, she starred alongside Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in “The Wiz.” It was this version of Horne, as Glinda the Good Witch, that Winters knew and loved growing up.
In the film, Horne utters a line that seems to summarize her long, storied career, one marked with personal and political struggle: “Home is knowing: knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere.”
A home for Lena
After Winters dazzles St. Cloud-area audiences with “Lena: A Moment with a Lady,” the show will head to Maryland in March.
Following that engagement, Winters will take up residency at Minton’s Playhouse, a legendary 80-year-old jazz establishment in the heart of Harlem.
“Harlem, USA, baby! That’s jazz central!” Winters hooted. “I’m very, very excited to have a home for Lena.”
Like Horne, Winters is a storyteller, using her voice, body and soul to convey truths that resonate deep within all who stop to hear them. She hopes her audiences will walk away “just knowing that much more” about the woman whose life and work acted as a gateway for Winters’ own career.
“I want people to know who she was, and how much work she put in so there could be people life me, people like Halle Berry, people like Diana Ross,” she said. “She’s very important, and her story is an important one to be told.”
It’s an important story, she said, simply because Horne persisted.
“It’s her perseverance,” Winters said. “She was the person that the NAACP and the Urban League used as a weapon to break the color barrier in Hollywood. She’s unapologetically black, so that I can be.”
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If you go …
Syndee Winters will perform “Lena: A Moment with a Lady” at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 10 in the Escher Auditorium at the College of St. Benedict: 37 College Avenue South, St. Joseph.
Ticket prices are as follows:
- $25 general admission
- $22 for seniors
- $18 for CSB/SJU faculty and staff
- $15 for youth/students with ID
- $10 for CSB/SJU students
Tickets are available at www.csbsju.edu/fine-arts/performances/syndee-winters or by calling the Benedicta Arts Center box office: (320) 363-5777.
Syndee Winters will also be leading a workshop for young actors in tandem with GREAT Theatre at 10 a.m. on Feb. 10 at the Helgeson Learning Lab Theatre in the GREAT Theatre headquarters: 710 Sundial Drive, Waite Park.
Winters will lead participants ages 10-18 through visualization exercises, explore emotional and physical tools for actors, and more.
Registration for the workshop is $10 and includes a ticket to the 7:30 p.m. performance of “Lena: A Moment with a Lady” at the Escher Auditorium. To register, call: (320) 258-2787. Limited spots available.
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