Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City

Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City. LEFT Ella Fitzgerald in 1940. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress. RIGHT Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb Orchestra (undated, uncredited)
Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City. LEFT Ella Fitzgerald in 1940. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress. RIGHT Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb Orchestra (undated, uncredited)

NEW YORK – Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City

“Ella The Ungovernable” is a riveting theatrical experience that transported the audience to the tumultuous adolescence of Ella Fitzgerald, projecting and honoring her indomitable spirit and extraordinary talent. Staged at New York’s Theater for the New City, the play delves into the pivotal period of Ella’s life when, in 1933, she was incarcerated at the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson, NY. This production is a poignant portrayal of resilience and transformation, offering a glimpse into the early struggles and triumphs that shaped one of the greatest jazz singers of all time.

A Stark Beginning

The narrative unfolded primarily within the confines of the New York Training School for Girls, a reform institution where young Ella arrived after a series of unfortunate events. The setting was stark and somber, reflecting the harsh realities of the era and the oppressive environment Ella faced. The play skillfully uses this backdrop to highlight the contrast between Ella’s bleak circumstances and her vibrant inner world filled with dreams and melodies.


A scene from Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City. Geneva Turner (Social Worker), Simone Black (Aunt Edna). Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

A scene from Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City. Geneva Turner (Social Worker), Simone Black (Aunt Edna). Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Compassion

As the story begins, we meet a 15-year-old Ella (Christian Neal) grappling with the weight of her past. Through sessions with the compassionate Training School psychologist Dr. Moreno (Sheldon Young), Ella’s troubled history is unveiled in flashbacks. These scenes are seamlessly integrated into the narrative, each played out across the front of the stage, providing a dynamic, immersive experience.

The audience is taken on a journey through Ella’s painful memories, from her relationship with her loving mother who died tragically, her abusive alcoholic stepfather Joseph (Joe Armondo Grosso), and the neglectful, harrowing time she finds herself with her Aunt Edna (Simone Black), an ostentatious, domineering individual who accepts Ella simply for the monthly stipends from social services. Eventually, Ella auditions for and is accepted to perform with the Training School Choir led by the Choirmaster (Huston Pigford).

The Gravity of Ella’s Plight

The depiction of Ella’s involvement with a local brothel, where she served as a lookout, is particularly harrowing. In a scene softened by Ella’s habit of responsibly doing her homework while watching for the police, it underscores the dire circumstances leading to her incarceration and sets the stage for her eventual renaissance. This portion of the play was handled with sensitivity and nuance, avoiding sensationalism while conveying the gravity of Ella’s plight.

A scene from Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City. Choirmaster rehearses singers at New York State Training School for Girls at Hudson, N.Y. Left: Huston Pigford. Right: Ebony Nixon, Tezha Davis, Gabrielle Farley, Christian Neal, Autumn McCree, Kiara Joseph. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

A scene from Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City. Choirmaster rehearses singers at New York State Training School for Girls at Hudson, N.Y. Left: Huston Pigford. Right: Ebony Nixon, Tezha Davis, Gabrielle Farley, Christian Neal, Autumn McCree, Kiara Joseph. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

A Glimmer of Hope

Ella’s life takes a dramatic turn when she meets Dr. M. E. Ross (Lee Waldrop) of the NAACP and Dr. Grant (Martin Challinor), the school’s medical doctor. Dr. Ross had been investigating conditions at the Training School and brought it to the attention of Dr. Grant. Their intervention is a turning point in the narrative, offering a glimmer of hope in Ella’s otherwise bleak existence. Dr. Grant’s arrangement with Dr. M. E. Ross to take Ella and her cellmate and friend Alice (Tyra Hughes) into their home in Harlem is a pivotal moment, symbolizing the beginning of Ella’s journey toward freedom and self-discovery.



Amateur Night at The Apollo

The play reaches its emotional crescendo with Ella’s dazzling performance at the Apollo Theater, orchestrated by Dr. Ross. This scene with Christian Neal as Ella was electrifying, capturing the raw talent and charisma that would soon make Ella a household name. Her rendition of “A Tisket a Tasket,” a song she co-wrote with her mother, was an extraordinarily poignant moment. The audience witnessed the birth of a star as Ella’s voice soared and captivated everyone in attendance. The extended applause that closed the show was a testament to a robust production portraying Ella’s undeniable brilliance and the transformative power of music.

In a scene from Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City, Christian Neal as Ella Fitzgerald singing "A Tisket A Tasket" at Amateur Night at the Apollo. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

In a scene from Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City, Christian Neal as Ella Fitzgerald singing “A Tisket A Tasket” at Amateur Night at the Apollo. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Resilience

The cast delivered exceptional performances, led by Christian Neal’s tender portrayal of Ella, which brought vulnerability and strength to the role and her singing, which honored the musical talents of Ella Fitzgerald. Her portrayal was nuanced, capturing the complexity of a young girl who is both a victim of her circumstances and a beacon of resilience.



Supporting Cast

The supporting cast was powerful all around. Each contributed with solid performances that provided depth and dimension. Special recognition is due to cellmate and gifted singer Alice (Tyra Hughes), Shadenia Sivad as the kind-hearted Marie, Simone Black as Aunt Edna, Michele Baldwin as Ella’s loving mother Tempie, and Sheldon Young as the Training School’s kindly psychologist Dr. Moreno.

Meticulous and Perceptive

The production design was another highlight, with the set and costumes meticulously recreating the 1930s. The attention to detail enhanced the narrative’s authenticity, immersing the audience in the era. The skilled, perceptive use of lighting, music, and sound further accentuated the emotional tones of the play, particularly during the flashback sequences and the climactic performance at the Apollo Theater.

A scene from Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City. Left: Stella Rose, Lee Waldorp, Willie Ann. Right: Christian Neal, Tyra Hughes, Huston Pigford. Photo by Jonathann Slaff.

A scene from Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City. Left: Stella Rose, Lee Waldorp, Willie Ann. Right: Christian Neal, Tyra Hughes, Huston Pigford. Photo by Jonathann Slaff.

Overcoming Adversity

“Ella The Ungovernable” is a must-see play. It is not just a biographical recounting but a triumph and celebration of the human spirit and Ella Fitzgerald’s incredible contributions to music. It casts light on the often-overlooked struggles many young women faced during this period, highlighting the importance of compassion and mentorship in overcoming adversity.



This production, “Ella the Ungovernable” left viewers moved and inspired, with a deep appreciation for the journey of the First Lady of Song.

Runtime is about 120 minutes without intermission.

The show runs through July 7.

Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City

By David McDonald: Playwright, Writer and Co-Director
Michele Baldwin: Co-Director

Cast

Christian Neal as Ella
Tyra Hughes as Alice
Ebony Nixon as Althea
Gabrielle Farley as Dorothy/US
Michele Baldwin as Tempie
Shadenia Sivad as Marie
Joe Grosso as Joseph
Simone Black as Aunt Edna
Colleen Hayden as the Superintendent
Davon Cochran as Ralph Cooper
Huston Pigford as Mr. Ellison/Choirmaster
Geneva Turner as the Social Worker
Martin Challinor as Dr. Grant
Michael McGrath as O’Boyle
Lee Waldrop as Dr. Ross
Rick Jorand as Sargeant Michaels
Autumn McCree as the Prison Bully (Lakesha/US)
Kiara Joseph as the Woman on Bus (Bernice/Tanya)
Tezha Davis as the Bully’s Friend/Darlene
Stella Rose as Alma
Willie Anne Gussendanner as Mrs. Ross

Artistic

Jasmine Hyman: Production Manager
Bailey Kasdon: Stage Manager
Alexander Bartenieff: Technical Director
Dave Swanson: Sound Director
Julian Sweeney: Technical Assistant



Theater for the New City

155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street)
New York NY

Box office (212) 254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net

Readers may also enjoy our reviews of Ari Axelrod’s A Place for Us: A Celebration of Jewish Broadway, PUFFS at The Theater at WHATcoWhale Fall Abyss, Bacon Brothers at MPAC, Mention My Beauty at Pangea, Welcome to Matteson, Myriam Phiro Becoming Marlene Dietrich, and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Paper Mill Playhouse.

Ella the Ungovernable at the Theater for the New City

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