A New Enterprise : Nichelle Nichols reflects on her influences, from Josephine Baker to Mahalia Jackson
Nichelle Nichols, mercurially slipping in and out of wigs and costumes, vocally unleashes Ella and Eartha and Lena and Bessie and 10 other lustrous women of song in a unique cabaret show at the Westwood Playhouse that takes Nichols back to her musical theater roots.
She calls her show “Reflections,” in a frequently raucous and witty personal salute to the legendary scat, blues, jazz and pop divas whom she says influenced her life and career.
Much of the public, and every “Trekkie,” knows Nichols as the communications officer, Lt. Uhura, from the “Star Trek” movies and the cult TV series (1966-69), which has enjoyed a remarkably long life-after-TV-death.
But Nichols’ self-proclaimed “true love” is the musical stage. There, as a 16-year-old ballerina in her native Chicago, Duke Ellington spotted her and asked her to choreograph and perform in a ballet for one of his suites. Soon she was singing in his band, performing on the road with the Duke and later Lionel Hampton and making the supper club circuit in Manhattan.
Now, after a long hiatus from musical theater, Nichols has come roaring back with a show (Fridays only, at the Westwood Playhouse, through March 9) that she and talented composer-lyricist Jim Meechan hope to take on tour and eventually land on Broadway.
What makes the production unusual is that all the numbers are original songs, wickedly tailored to the vocal and physical style of the subjects (which include Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Eartha Kitt, Sarah Vaughan and even Nichols doing Nichols).
The show even illuminates such surprises as American expatriate Josephine Baker and ‘20s Broadway flapper Florence Mills, in sketches notable for their historical and dramatic value.
Testing a new show is always a gamble, and this one wasn’t any different.
For example, opening night two weeks ago, the first time the company and its classy six-man orchestra had ever played the Westwood house, was an unblemished success. By the next performance, it was another story. Nichols proved her mettle as a trouper as glitches in the sound system alternately filled the air with screeches and a lingering powdery dust from the backstage set of another show also at the Westwood made Nichols’ bell-like, four-octave voice fight to prevail.
Meechan, lugging some ill-fated sound equipment out of the theater after the show, said necessary repairs would be in place by the third show last week. Meanwhile, Westwood Playhouse artistic director Eric Krebs, based in his offices back in New York, was belatedly
beginning to take notice of the show after reading a couple of glowing reviews.
Nichols, in her dressing room, said she began putting the show together two years ago, not long after her last stage performance in L.A., a quirky dramatic role in which she played a black woman who was Italian by marriage, in John Patrick Shanley’s “Italian-American Reconciliation” at the Gnu Theater.
She credits much of this production’s freshness to her arranger, Rahn Coleman, and to Meechan’s inventive music and lyrics (at one blues point we hear Ma Rainey snarl “. . .and when he’s with you, baby, I’m always on his mind”).
Of all the ladies Nichols re-creates, she said her favorites vary from show to show. “Just when I think it’s Florence Mills, it becomes Sarah Vaughan.
“I almost feel these women,” she said. “I become them. I don’t think of what I’m doing as impersonation. When I do Billie, I almost lose myself in her pain. And when I do Sarah I feel her shyness.” With Lena Horne, “I feel that inner strength, that centering and almost an anger. With Eartha I have the most fun because I know Eartha the best. Eartha’s a survivor.”
Actually, Nichols sang in her role as Uhura on TV’s “Star Trek”--in three episodes, to be exact. As if that wasn’t pace-setting enough, she also engaged in TV’s first interracial kiss when she kissed William Shatner, in a historic television moment that was also controversial.
“The network and production company allowed it to go through, thanks to creator Gene Roddenberry,” Nichols said. (The episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” aired in 1968).
It was Roddenberry, in fact, who Nichols credits with fighting to cast her on “Star Trek.” At first Desilu and NBC didn’t want a black woman on the show, she said.
A few years earlier, in 1963, while Nichols was trying to be an actress in Hollywood and making a living singing in such clubs as the old Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills, Roddenberry gave Nichols her break in a short-lived TV series called “The Lieutenant.”
Then came a call from Roddenberry a couple of years later to join “Star Trek,” a show that was not a ratings hit and was regularly clobbered by the opposition. “I don’t think anyone knew what we had,” said Nichols.
“And I was getting disgruntled with my role being increasingly cut during the first couple of years, and I was about to quit the show when I met Dr. Martin Luther King.
“I told him I was thinking of leaving the program, and Dr. King said to me--I’ll never forget this--’You can’t quit. You are very important in the King household. You can’t quit. Do you realize the importance of your role in this moment and this time in history?
“ ‘You are the first non-stereotypical black seen on TV,’ ” King told me. “ ‘A person of any color could play your role. You’ve cut through everything and changed minds and set standards. We need you. We must have you.’ ”
“Dr. King told me that as a black woman in a non-black role, ‘You’re changing television forever. It can never go back.’ ”
It was her work on “Star Trek” that led to Nichols becoming an influential spokeswoman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1970s. She was the key player traveling around the country recruiting the first women and minority astronauts for the space program in 1978. She received NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Award for her efforts in her outreach recruitment program, which ultimately was responsible for 1,600 applications from women and minorities. Three of her recruits were on the space shuttle Challenger when it blew up in 1986. “I lost three in the tragedy,” she said.
Nichols recruited three young people for “Reflections” by calling the Inner City Cultural Center, a multicultural minority arts facility in South-Central Los Angeles, for a hairdresser and two wardrobe assistants. For that matter, her composer, Meechan, used to be the corporate vice president for research and engineering for Rockwell International.
A frustrated trombonist, he used to write songs for club bands while traveling the globe for Rockwell. He left Rockwell in 1984 for show business. “I’m a physicist,” he said. “Music is physics. The structure is definitely physics and mathematics. Of course, as a musician, you have to feel too.” As for Nichols, who has a son, Kyle Johnson, who is a talented musician, she said music became her life when “I was a little girl watching for the icebox door to open. When the light went on inside the fridge, it was my cue to start singing ‘Let Me Entertain You.’ ” TV reference books date her birth as 1936. Sounds close. She’s been entertaining ever since.
“Reflections” is at the Westwood Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., at 8 p.m. Fridays through March 9. Tickets are $17.50-$25. For more information, call (213) 208-5454.
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