- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Three renowned Broadway divas will share the stage at The Washington Times’ Arbor Ballroom tomorrow and Saturday to celebrate Black Music Month.

This Jazz in Summer program, featuring Linda Hopkins, Barbara McNair and Lillias White, is sponsored by the East Coast Friends of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, Kankouran West African Dance Company and the Women’s Federation for World Peace.

Miss Hopkins, a Tony Award winner who performed in “Me and Bessie” and “Black and Blue,” will lead off the shows. Born in New Orleans, she began singing in her hometown church as a child.

“At the age of 11, I booked Mahalia Jackson to perform at my church,” Miss Hopkins says, adding that the legendary singer arrived for her performance without realizing that the booking agent was a child. “She wanted to meet the lady who booked her for the show. When I told her, ‘I was the one who booked you, Miss Jackson,’ you could imagine how surprised Mahalia was.”

But when she sang one of Miss Jackson’s songs, “God Shall Wipe Your Tears Away,” the star was so moved that she arranged for the youngster to join the Southern Harp Spiritual Singers, an association that would last 11 years.

“The second thing that changed my life was seeing Bessie Smith,” Miss Hopkins says. “After seeing Bessie, I began singing many of her songs, and I was so inspired I later conceived, wrote and starred in the musical ‘Me and Bessie.’ It not only brought me a Drama Desk Award, but also propelled me to a Tony for ‘Inner City.’”

In addition to numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” and roles in the movie “Honky Tonk Man” with Clint Eastwood and the TV movie “King” with Billy Dee Williams, the multifaceted Miss Hopkins appeared on Broadway in “Purlie” and has performed at countless jazz festivals and concerts in 14 European countries.

This weekend’s second versatile diva, Barbara McNair, is a singer and star of movies and television. Miss McNair is not only an artist, but also a work of art herself: She was the first black woman numbered among the world’s 10 most beautiful women by the International Society of Cosmetologists..

“An honor I’m very proud of,” she says. “But I’m also proud of being the first black woman to have my own musical variety show, ‘The Barbara McNair Show.’ That show lasted for two years, and it was syndicated. A lot of places like the South back then would not play it because I was a black woman.

“I didn’t realize until recently when I ran across some of the tapes of ‘The Barbara McNair Show’ how many wonderful artists I had on the show — like Johnny Mathis, Ester Phillips, B.B. King, Little Richard just to name a few,” Miss McNair says.

Born in Chicago and raised in Wisconsin, Miss McNair first showed talent in her early school years.

“I began training at the Racine Conservatory of Music, and the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and attended UCLA for a brief period. Then I decided to head to New York. And soon after I got an agent, I did a week on the ‘Arthur Godfrey Show,’” she says.

“Then I began my road to headliner in many of the country’s most prestigious nightclubs at the time,” she continues, “like the Persian Room at the New York Plaza Hotel, the Purple Onion, the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, of course. But the turning point in my career was my Broadway debut in the musical ‘The Body Beautiful.’ Then I took over the role in Richard Rodgers’ Broadway hits ‘No Strings’ and ‘Pajama Game.’”

The third diva, Lillias White, also began performing at an early age. “My Aunt Lillias and my grandmother would have this big dinner,” she remembers. “I would get up on the table and sing and dance for my family. I also would dream of someday performing with legends such as Linda Hopkins and Barbara McNair.”

Miss White met Miss Hopkins years ago when the latter was performing in Broadway’s “Black and Blue.” But she only met Miss McNair a couple of years ago when she and Miss Hopkins were performing at the Black Arts Festival in North Carolina. “Linda saw me in the audience and asked me to come up on stage and jam with them,” Miss White says.

In 1997, Miss White won the Tony Award and the Drama Desk Award for “The Life,” and the People’s Choice Award for “Sonya.” Her other

Broadway credits include “Cats,” “Dream Girls” and “Barnum.” She appeared off-Broadway in “Dinah Was” (Dinah Washington) and “Romance in

Hard Times,” for which she won an Obie Award. Miss White also toured in shows such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “The Wiz.” She won an Emmy Award for her work on “Sesame Street.”

Miss White has performed at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and was a guest on the PBS program “In Performance at the White House.” “That’s where I shared the stage with Leontyne Price, and to have met her was a wonderful experience for me,” Miss White says.

She provided the voice of Calliope in the animated Disney film “Hercules” and appeared in the movie “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” starring Jim Carrey.

“I did a movie last year that will be out this fall called ‘Pieces of April.’ It’s a warm family movie,” Miss White says.

In addition to the three singers, Curtis King, who recently produced “Symphony with the Divas” at the Kennedy Center, and Calvin Jones Jr., musical director, round out the production.

Tickets cost $40 (cash bar), and proceeds will benefit the Kankouran West African Dance Company, the Sun of Mozambique School, and the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Inc.

For tickets or more information, call 202/636-8919.

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