What theater doesn’t love the phrase “Back by popular demand”? At the Penumbra in St. Paul, “I Wish You Love,” a drama with music about Nat “King” Cole’s year as the first African-American with his own television show, has been extended for the second time.
Careful, Penumbra, or you’ll have another “Triple Espresso” on your hands.
Written by Dominic Taylor, directed by Lou Bellamy, set in 1957 and starring Dennis Spears as Cole (a role for which he recently won the Ivey Award), “I Wish You Love” went from its sold-out Penumbra premiere run (April 21 to May 22) to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and Hartford Stage in Connecticut. It returned for an encore (Nov. 18 to Dec. 4) and now will continue through Dec. 18 in a lightly revised version: fewer songs, more story.
MinnPost spoke with Spears earlier this week about the play and what it’s like to step into Nat “King” Cole’s shoes.
MinnPost: Why do you think this play is so successful?
Dennis Spears: Number one, people have a genuine love and attachment to Nat “King” Cole and what he gave to us. Also, the way this story is constructed, and the way it’s being performed, is drawing people in. Lou Bellamy has done an amazing job of directing. The creative team has put together a very interesting way to present the story, using media footage, film footage, and TV commercials from that era.
MP: You’ve said this is a dream role for you.
DS: Not many actors get a chance to take on the lives of their idols. I’ve admired Nat “King” Cole since I was 5 years old. I didn’t know why at the time, but I wanted to be just like him. We weren’t allowed to listen to anything but gospel music in our home, but at Christmas, while we were cleaning — we had to hand-wax the floors before we could put up the Christmas tree — my aunt would put on the Nat “King” Cole Christmas album. I lived for Christmas, not just for the gifts, but to hear that album.
MP: “I Wish You Love” is not all smiling and happy songs.
DS: It has shaken me up in a way I didn’t expect. I grew up in the South, on my grandfather’s farm in Mangham, Louisiana. When we were still in rehearsal and I was working on the script, I told Lou, “This is bringing up some ugly stuff for me. Feelings I don’t know that I want to revisit.” And Lou said, “Dennis, you have to go there.” That’s how we found the emotional arc for Nat.
To see this man struggle to keep a dream alive is heartbreaking. Even with all his money and that beautiful smile and all his talent, he comes to realize that it doesn’t matter. I am still considered a second-class citizen. I am still a Negro.
MP: Are you speaking as Nat or as Dennis?
DS: A bit of both. Going back to my childhood, I watched my grandfather — who was prominent in the community, who owned more land than any other African-American in the state at the time — called by his first name by young men my age, called “boy.” I remember thinking, “What does he have to do to earn respect?”
MP: What else did you do to prepare for the role?
DS: I purposely didn’t watch a lot of film footage, because I didn’t want to come off as a caricature. I did watch the opening of his show; I wanted to catch that little tag line.
One of the first things I did was slow down my rhythm. Dennis’ rhythm is poppy and jerky and fast, constantly moving. I had to think of the ultra-coolest Nat I could imagine. I totally changed my walk. I noticed that Nat looked a little pigeon-toed, so I turned my feet in slightly. That slowed me down.
Lou helped me to understand, “This is you playing Nat KING Cole. Take your time with everything. We’ll wait on you.” I also tried to give him a sense of sexiness — to make him as smoky and sexy as I could without being overt.
MP: I saw the play during the original run, and as I watched you as Cole deal with the frustrations and humiliations he experienced, you seemed to gather a great darkness around you.
DS: The most difficult part was going to that dark place. By the time I get to Act 2, when I’m sitting on a stool singing “Mona Lisa,” I feel a sickness in my stomach, a knot, at every performance. From that point on, I tell myself, “You have to push.” When I finally get to the last song, “I Wish You Love,” I’m actually trying to breathe.
I’m facing all that stuff from my past. Nat and the journey he has just taken is an ugly reminder. There have been performances where I could actually smell the South.
MP: Do you have a favorite moment from the play? Is there a high point for you?
DS: I love singing the most unrecognizable song, “Morning Star.” I’m such a mama’s boy, and in the story, Nat sings it in honor of his mother. It’s a lullaby, a way of consoling himself without his mother being present. I’ll always reach to my mom, especially in times when I can’t see my way through something or can’t fight my way through. I go to my faith first, then to my mom.
MP: Did I hear that your mother was at the Kennedy Center?
DS: Oh my God. Was my mother there? She was the belle of the ball. My mother came, my sister flew in from Seattle, my aunt and cousins came from Oakland, San Francisco and Chicago. A cousin from Minneapolis flew in. Opening night was a dream. My mother was the proudest peacock at the Kennedy Center.
“I Wish You Love” runs through Sunday, Dec. 18, with performances Wednesdays-Sundays. Tickets ($10-$40) are available at the Penumbra Theatre website, where you can also watch a brief video about the play. Or call the box office at 651-224-3180.