I spent a long time thinking about the decisions behind Stormy: The Life of Lena Horne and the concept presented ultimately left me confused. One thing that is unquestionable is the talent and performance of Camilla Beeput who quite rightly brought her audience to their feet at the close of this one-woman show. She seemed to glide through it all without breaking sweat. But this problem was that I left thinking about Camilla, and not Lena at all.
Stormy gives us a biography of Horne’s place in history but mainly focuses on the first half of the 20th Century when the performer was blazing a trail in Hollywood. The narrative shuttles us through Horne’s life with a dysfunctional family in New York, including a theatrical but mentally fragile mother, a charismatic but absent father, and a formidable Grandmother politically active with NAACP. Horne’s first and last lines of the production are: “I am a black woman.” And Horne, as the narrator of her own story, re-plays moment after moment where these two unalterable facts define her identity and struggle.
Cab Calloway, Ava Gardner and a sublime Billie Holliday drift in and out of the narrative inspiring such beautiful lines like “those blues whose feminine truths…” and the delightfully punchy “cunt power” from Ava Gardner, who we are told was one of her best friends in Hollywood and was given the role of Julie in Showboat instead of Horne. At one insidiously symbolic moment Horne recalls how the “Light Egyptian” shade that Max Factor invented especially for her was used to “black-up” Gardner. In terms of the narrative, this seems the final insult from what started out as a ground breaking contract at MGM where she was promised, and had written into her contract, no slave or maid roles. Despite landing several big roles in MGM musicals, her presence in movies alongside white co-stars was still often shamefully relegated to the cutting room floor.
Horne’s political life is also touched on, with the dominant suggestion being that her presence in the mainstream of Hollywood could be seen as activism in itself. Yet this presents only half the story and denies Horne her place at the centre of black political life alongside friend and mentor Paul Robeson. Robeson’s communist belief that the structure of capitalism was the root of the black struggle, was part of the discourse of the day and one with which Horne was familiar. In 1985 she said that Robeson had helped her learn who she was. The show’s Hollywood narrative, however, ends with Showboat and doesn’t touch on Horne’s distancing and denouncing of Robeson and his politics, who found himself exiled for most of the 50s. I’m not sure why this fascinating and well-known aspect of Horne’s life was airbrushed out of this show – although doing so ironically mirrors what Horne had to do to survive in the 1950s.
The Horne that Beeput gives us is aware of her audience at all times and the work has a feel of one Horne’s cabaret shows from the latter part of her career. Beeput is confident, with an ease that suggests a life lived on stage chose her, not the other way around. Her narration is fluid and dream like – perhaps too much so. In the second half, the focus on the character of Horne slips away and the show feels less extraordinary than it should. The decision to fragment the timeline also means the work becomes unbalanced. This is a towering performance by Beeput, but I leave feeling frustrated.
Stormy: The Life of Lena Horne was on as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2017. Click here for more details.