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Ella Fitzgerald play, an original, will debut in Valatie in February

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

“Ella The Ungovernable,” a play about Ella Fitzgerald’s incarceration at the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson in 1933 -- before she became a famous jazz singer -- will debut on Valentine's Day weekend at the Valatie (N.Y.) Community Theatre.

This will be the first original production ever held at the theater, located at 3031 Main St. in Valatie. The play will debut on Friday, Feb. 14, at 7 p.m. and the following day at 4:30. Tickets are $10 to $15 and can be purchased here.

In case of sellout or inclement weather, the play will be performed the following weekend -- Feb. 21 and 22 -- as well. For more information, call (518) 758-1309.

According to a press release from the theater, playwright David McDonald (pictured below) first learned about the Fitzgerald story several years ago after reading about it in Hudson’s Prison Public Memory Project.

In 1933, a then-unknown young girl named Ella Fitzgerald was incarcerated at the girls’ training school in Hudson. Few details are known about her around the time of her incarceration, but what is known is this:

When Ella was 15, she was living in Yonkers with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. The mother died, leaving Ella at the

hands of the boyfriend, a man whom, historians have suggested, might have abused Ella.

Ella escaped her situation by fleeing to the streets of Harlem, where she took a job as a lookout for one of Harlem’s famous bordellos. She eventually was caught by police and taken to the girls’ training school, where, rumor has it, physical and sexual abuse were commonplace.

Less than a year later, she escaped back to Harlem. No one knows exactly how she did it.

About two weeks after her escape, she was talked into trying out at the first-ever Amateur Night at The Apollo Theater, where, against difficult odds, she won.

Orchestra leader Chick Webb was sitting in the audience that night and persuaded the state of New York to parole Ella to his orchestra. Months later, they had their first worldwide hit with “A Tisket, A Tasket.”

When McDonald first heard the story, he recognized its power immediately:

“On a surface level, it was probably the greatest allegory for centuries of African-American incarceration I had ever heard,” McDonald said in the theater press release. “Plus, it’s the story of people being trapped with no visible means of escape. I feel that this is the way half of the country feels living under the Donald Trump regime.”

McDonald continued: “Over the last few years, I have wondered why we haven’t had protest songs or works of art like we did in the ‘60s, like ‘Blowing In The Wind.’ Was it simply because they were not being written or not being played? I set out in my mind to give the majority of us Americans -- the ones who are feeling marginalized -- a project to inspire and galvanize the people. The message of the play is: ‘Don’t ever give up.’ ”

Over the past 15 years, McDonald primarily has been known as a documentary filmmaker, having directed the feature-length documentaries “Woodstock Revisited” and “The Mystery Of Creativity.” He also has done numerous short-form videos for clients such as The New York Times and Chronogram Magazine on Hudson Valley subjects such as Olana, The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, and The Hudson River wine-growing region.

“I am a huge fan of local history, and I generally choose subjects that are close to me, such as the early history of the Woodstock arts colony or Marc Chagall’s exile in the Hudson Valley in the late 1940s,” McDonald said.

When he first discovered the story of Ella Fitzgerald’s incarceration, the idea was to make a dramatic film about it, shot at the original Hudson locations where everything had transpired in 1933. After trying in vain to raise funds for such a film, a friend of McDonald’s suggested he start the project as a play.

“I fell in love with that idea immediately for a variety of reasons,” McDonald recalled. “First, I love the idea of involving the community in a creative project. … Starting the Ella Fitzgerald project as a community-based theatrical project is a way of taking my art and making it art for the people, involving the community in every aspect of the production, from acting to lighting to staging, makeup, costumes and promotion.”

McDonald, a Brooklyn native who lives in Kinderhook, started directing the theatrical production in Hudson in June 2019, doing casting and rehearsals in a gallery on Warren Street and at the Hudson Area Library. Notable cast members include Hudson Alderwoman Tiffany Garriga as Ella’s wicked Aunt Edna and WGXC news reader Philip Grant as Ralph Cooper, the Apollo Master of Ceremonies.

Over the course of the summer of 2019, the production morphed, with several main actresses coming and going due to other commitments, summer camp and family trips.

“Our production sort of ground to a halt at the end of the summer,” McDonald said. “We had three actresses playing Ella in three months, and I started thinking it would just be easier to cast and mount this production in New York City, so I started to reach out to theaters there.”

One day, McDonald received an unexpected response from Crystal Field, the legendary founder of the Theater for The New City in Greenwich Village. She offered McDonald the theater’s main stage for the month of January, albeit with one small caveat: “She could help us with everything, from casting to rehearsal space to providing us with theater techs. The only thing she could not help us with was funding.”

After spending several weeks trying to network in the theater production community, McDonald realized that getting the production up and running in New York City by January 2020 might be technically impossible:

“It was quite a weird position for me to be in,” McDonald said. “On the one hand, we had an offer from a famous Off-Broadway theater -- I would never have imagined anything like that happening. On the other hand, this offer was only contingent on us raising tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of weeks.”

After exhausting what he thought were his fundraising capabilities, McDonald was having lunch one day at the Valatie Diner when he noticed tons of kids going in and out of the Valatie Community Theatre across the street.

“Just on a whim, I decided to cross the street and see what was going on there. It was one of the neatest surprises I ever got,” McDonald said.

At the theater, McDonald ran into George Phelps, who was running rehearsal on behalf of his wife, Tanya, that day for a kids’ production of Frozen Jr., the musical.

“It was the proverbial light-bulb moment,” McDonald said. “Here I was, deciding which next steps to take, and the solution presented itself, right out of the blue.”

McDonald mentioned to Tanya the difficulty he was having finding replacements for the two major roles in his play -- a young Ella Fitzgerald and her best friend and cellmate, Alice -- and Tanya said two of her students would be ideal for the two parts.

Soon, McDonald and Tanya were collaborating on ideas, casting and venues, primarily the Valatie Community Theatre.

“I asked Tanya if the theater might be interested in trying out a new thing, presenting a new play of original material, rather than children’s versions of Broadway musicals. She introduced me to their board.”

On a snowy night in December, McDonald made his pitch to the theater board. Board members apparently liked what they heard. After all sides concluded they shared the same priorities, theater officials decided to expand their original vision and run the venue’s first-ever original play.

Tanya Phelps became the play’s director, and Ilicia Mitchell plays young Ella.

“If I had ever really thought about the odds of my own success with this play, I probably would have never had the courage to write it,” McDonald said. “The world is always going to doubt you. It’s always going to put up barriers. It’s always going to say, ‘No, you can’t do this.’

“But that’s precisely the point of why I wrote the play, and while I am moving forward with it relentlessly, no matter what. Because, If I’m telling the audience, ‘Don’t ever give up,’ then I can’t really give up, either.”


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