Carmen de Lavallade ends her autobiographical one-woman show As I Remember It with several lines from “The Song of Mehitabel” by Don Marquis:
my youth i shall never forget
but there s nothing i really regret
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai
The dancer, actress and teacher, now 84, has been performing “Three Scenes for Archy & Mehitabel” in recent years with fellow dance luminary Gus Solomons Jr., for the Paradigm dance company. These details—where the lines come from, de Lavallade’s relation to them—aren’t mentioned in As I Remember It. Which is fine. You either catch them or you don’t. The entire show is a blur of references so diverse, faded-historical, uncontextualized or obscure that nobody could be expected to catch a majority of them.
What they add up to is an extraordinary life, a career which includes stardom in the African-American dance companies of the 1940s and 1950s, Broadway acclaim, bit parts in Hollywood movies, a decade teaching at the Yale School of Drama, a long happy marriage to fellow dancer Geoffrey Holder, and anything else de Lavallade (and director Joe Grifasi, who was at the Yale School of Drama when de Lavallade was teaching there in the 1970s) can fit in.
This is a fully produced multi-media, multi-disciplinary spectacle that never loses its central fragility and humanity. There are constant unspoken reminders that de Lavallade’s career might have been very different were she not a black woman in mid-20th century America. There are also tales of opportunity and talent and perseverance.
The projections (video design by Maya Ciarrocchi) and clever lighting effects (James F. Ingalls) help keep the evening upbeat and bright and constantly in motion, but they are nothing next to the chance to see how beautifully Carmen de Lavallade still dances at the age of 84. She tells her story casually and conversationally. When she messed up a line on Thursday night, she interjected “See what happens when you get older?” to warm forgiving chuckles from the audience.
Some of the things de Lavallade remembers (and occasionally projects on a big video screen/curtain behind her): joining the famed Lester Horton dance troupe in Los Angeles; watching the rise of her old school chum Alvin Ailey (“Who knew?,” she quips); doing walk-ons in films as far afield as The Golden Hawk, Lydia Bailey and Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; falling in love with Geoffrey Holder during the pre-Broadway try-outs of the musical House of Flowers;
making both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington cry with her “Tribute to Billie” (Holiday) at the Newport Jazz Festival; having to declare that she wasn’t a Communist so she could appear on the Ed Sullivan Show during the McCarthy blacklist era; appearing on the covers of Jet, Ebony, Hue, Colorfornia and other African-American culture magazines; creating the role of Googie Gomez in Terrence McNally’s The Ritz at Yale Rep (before the show went to Broadway with Rita Moreno as Googie).
There’s quite some time spent on another Yale Rep production, Alvin Epstein’s 1975 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Carmen de Lavallade played Titania opposite Christopher Lloyd as Oberon; the cast also included Meryl Streep as Helena, Victor Garber as Lysander and Joe Grifasi as Flute, to name a few.
On Thursday night, after leaving As I Remember It at Yale Rep and walking one block up Chapel Street, I ran into Margaret Holloway. She’s the local street performer known as The Shakespeare Lady, who recites dramatic monologues (not just Shakespeare, but Chaucer and the Greeks and Lesley Gore) if you give her money. Margaret attended the Yale School of Drama at the same time as Streep and Grifasi, and studied both acting and directing while de Lavallade was teaching Movement at the school. She recalled, and could still gush over, de Lavallade’s formfitting Titania costume 40 years after the show happened.
The remembrances persist. The International Festival of Arts & Ideas is an ideal place to see As I Remember It. The show, which had its world premiere a year ago at Jacob’s Pillow—site of many de Lavallade triumphs and, as she notes, at least one “lackluster” comedown in the late days of the Lester Horton company—is now being staged in the same theater where de Lavallade performed as a Yale faculty member, the same stage where director Grifasi and the composer of the show’s incidental music, Jane Ira Bloom, worked as students.
As I Remember is a marvelous memory-jogger for generations of dancers, actors and, not incidentally, New Haveners.