Watching New Orleans' "Queen of Soul" hold a packed house spellbound at the Anthony Bean Community Theater, my mind slipped back to an essay I once read by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca about the Spanish word duende. Duende means something like spirit or inspiration -- the inimitable, inexplicable force that radiates from a personality.
In order to explain duende, Lorca tells the story of a group of flamenco dancers at the Gypsy equivalent of a jam session. All the young women took turns, each vying with the others, thrilling the crowd with their skill, their grace, their energy. Finally, when all the others had finished, the attention of the crowd turned to an older woman, the greatest dancer of her generation. Would she dance? Could she possibly keep up with the virtuoso displays of the young set?
Slowly, the woman walked to the center of the circle. Slowly, she began to clap her hands. And then she danced. Her dance vied with no one. It expressed a lifetime's experience. The crowd grew awed, drawn in with her, experiencing something more than skill and grace and energy. She danced with duende.
Irma Thomas has duende -- a New Orleans form of duende. Her duende has little in common with the imperious, commanding assertiveness of a flamenco dancer. But her duende is as unmistakable and, one feels, as hard earned.
Beginning with her first record, "You Can Have my Husband," (considered so risque it was pulled off the air), Thomas takes us on an autobiographical trip through her career. She is aided by a top-notch five-piece band, under the baton of musical director Sam Henry. Off to one side of the stage, three African-American "Graces" clad in tight black garments and shimmy beads (Jowna Williams, Katrice Newbill and Gwendolyne Foxworth) put an appealing mixture of second-line joy and music-video cool into their backup routine.
The attractive and personable Gabrielle Porter, one of the most promising new talents of recent years, plays Irma as a teenager in the early scenes of the show. She sings with clarity and conviction, and her presence adds a nice sense of the continuity that keeps the local music scene so vibrant. Also on board was Sandra Richards, who does a gut-bucket blues solo and then joins Thomas for a show-stopping duet "You Don't Know Nothin' About Love" that would in itself be worth the price of admission.
Director Anthony Bean has staged the show with an eye to elegance: bare stage, black curtains, a few well-placed spotlights, a few simple effects. Choreographer Kesha McKey has provided catchy moves for dancers Kenata Collins, Kysha Shepard and Adrian Lindsey -- as well as doing a marvelous little solo number herself. Trish McLain's costumes are tasteful and apt.
Simply Irma is billed as a musical play, and that's stretching things a bit. The early scenes that are supposed to represent Thomas' start in show business have a certain amount of naive charm -- but are distinctly under-whelming, even given the fact that they are meant to be part of foolish script that's in rehearsal. In any case, this first script is discarded, when the diva herself interrupts the proceedings. So, the play-within-a-play has, at least, the advantage of brevity, and each of the scenes is helped along by a song. In very short order, the show has settled down on firmer ground, with Thomas at stage center and great New Orleans rhythm and blues in the air.
As the evening draws towards its close, Thomas gives a short epilogue. She talks about feeling blessed because of her voice and her talent, blessed to be able to share these gifts with an audience in her little corner of the world. She talks about being blessed with four children of her own, three stepchildren, many grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. She talks with pride of the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: a college degree she has just earned (in business studies at Delgado Community College). "At the age of 60," she says (looking several decades less than that), "I feel my life is just getting started."
If the "biographical scenes" were unenlightening, these last few words capture the mood of the show and the life it celebrates perfectly: a triumph not of glitz and glamour, but of simplicity and the spirit.