This Labor Day weekend marks the 12th year of the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage New Play Festival, a cornucopia of original works to tempt and astound audiences. For three days, more than 40 theaters, universities and companies from the D.C. metropolitan area will present free readings and open rehearsals of comedies, dramas and musicals ranging in content from family-friendly to mature- audience fare.
Seats to more than 50 festival performances throughout the Kennedy Center are available on a first-come, first-served basis 30 minutes in advance. Among the weekend's varied offerings, one choice sure to be popular is "Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song" in the Terrace Theater on Saturday at 8 p.m. It stars Freda Payne, the vivacious, versatile singer and actress whose many successes during a long, fruitful career include "Band of Gold," her chart-topping hit of 1970.
"I first heard Ella when I was 12 years old, and even though I was doing my own thing and had a variety of role models, her style touched me, and I made it my own," Miss Payne said in an interview Tuesday with The Washington Times. "When I learned in June of 1996 that she had passed, I made up my mind to do Ella in my shows from then on.
"The first time I performed in this musical was at the Crossroads Theater [in New Brunswick, N.J.] in December 2004. Maurice Hines, who knew Ella, conceived it for me and directed it. Lee Summers wrote the original book and has rewritten it for this production and the one scheduled at MetroStage [Jan. 23 to March 16]. The Kennedy Center presentation Saturday will be a reading of the new version with the music. It's slightly different than the original because there is now a young Ella. I'll play the older Ella. Maurice Hines is the host."
Miss Payne and her sister Scherrie Payne (a former member of the Supremes) had a rich musical upbringing in Detroit, encompassing everything from classical to jazz. While a teenager, she won radio talent shows and sang commercial jingles before heading to New York and releasing her first jazz album. Despite a steady output of singles and jazz and disco albums since then, "Band of Gold" was her only major hit.
"That turned out to be a fluke," said Miss Payne, speaking from Tucson, Ariz., where she was enjoying a day off from her role as a judge of the Mrs. America contest. "I've always sung jazz and turned down pop songs because it wasn't my genre, but I thought it was time to have a gold record smash hit and I did.
"Over the years, I've released 17 albums and done a lot of acting in musicals. I understudied Leslie Uggams in 'Hallelujah Baby' on Broadway and toured with eight companies in musicals like Duke Ellington's 'Sophisticated Lady' and 'Jelly's Last Jam' with Savion Glover. I've given many live concerts along the way, acted in six films and hosted my own talk show. I'm a performer. This is what I do."
Gregg Henry, who wears multiple hats at the Kennedy Center to promote education, is the curator of the Page-to-Stage Festival. "Many companies presenting this year have been with the festival from the start," he told The Washington Times. "Others I encounter are invited to apply if the artists involved are pushing boundaries. It's a year-round process of keeping the eyes and ears open to innovation.
"They all have a specific presentation in mind when they apply with a project. A playwright's work has to be sponsored, and each company must submit a written proposal. I have faith in every company to produce a work that excites and provokes. Most of the presentations in past years have enjoyed second lives because Page- to-Stage provides helpful audience reactions.
"The sheer volume of people gathering at the Kennedy Center on the holiday weekend is a meter of our success and confirms the astonishing range of theater being done in this region. I love to hear from a company that they have attracted a whole new audience."
WHAT: 12th annual Page-to-Stage New Play Festival
WHERE: Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW
WHEN: Saturday to Monday
PHONE: 800/444-1324 or 202/467-4600
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