Drew’s Friendship Folio #5: Terri White

Posted: July 14, 2011 in Broadway, Cabaret, Culture, Entertainment, Music, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized

OK, so I realize I haven’t done a Friendship Folio in a few weeks. This has partly to do with a certain person who shall be nameless telling me, “You know, you’re really doing yourself a disservice with this Friendship thing. People won’t take you seriously if you say someone’s a friend of yours and then you review them positively, because the readers will think you’re biased.” Well, at this point, I don’t care. Anyone with half a brain knows that I call it like I see it, and also that I’ve sometimes had to rip some of my best friends to shreds if I thought their performance wasn’t up to scratch. That said, I’d like to discuss my friendship with Terri White, one of the great ladies of Broadway and a woman I will never stop admiring as long as I have a salient brain cell in my head.

Terri was already long established as a Broadway star before I met her; she created the role of Joice Heth in Barnum at the St. James and completely electrified Broadway in the process, with a showstopping number in the first act. She went on to several other major successes after that, including understudying Nell Carter in Ain’t Misbehavin’, way before landing firmly in cabaret and piano bar as the new girl in town with which to be reckoned. But we’d never personally crossed paths. In point of fact, it was a wintry day in ’88 when I strolled into DT’s Fat Cat (one of my favorite Happy Hour hangouts back then) and my pal Jeff Matson ran up to me and said, “You’ll never guess who stopped in here the other night to sing. Terri White!” To be honest, I wasn’t even really sure who that was, but I feigned enthusiasm. It should be noted that at the time I was directing a cabaret act for Sukhreet Gabel (remember her?) at the Trocadero on Bleecker and Charles, and there was one night that me and my mom and a cousin and a friend besides Sukhreet eventually wended our way to the Five Oaks for some post-show drinks. The pianist (I think it was Bobby Peaco) then announced, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the one and only and incomparable, Miss Terri White!” She took her place at the microphone and delivered a rendering of “Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now,” which was so visceral as to have all of us in tears. I made it a point to go up to her and introduce myself, and she seemed thrilled to meet me; she knew who I was as a journalist and radio personality at the time, and assured me that I’d be seeing her around town sooner or later. To which I very much looked forward.

The next time we met was at Eighty Eight’s, at a benefit for the late Tim Moore, in which she got up and closed the show with her signature number from the regrettably short-lived Broadway musical Welcome to the Club, namely “A Tasty Piece of Cake.” I went up to her again and introduced myself, she remembered exactly who I was, and theretofore was born a friendship that has lasted for over two decades.

From there, my camaraderie with Terri blossomed completely. I will never forget the night she and I sat at the bar at the Five Oaks discussing performers like Vivian Reed and Cheryl Barnes and her professional entanglements with them, or the horror of hearing how she was a childhood victim of aggressive anti-Black sentiment. And all I could think was, “Screw that mess, girl. You’ve made it, you know it, we all know it, so let’s let it go.” But with Terri, it can never be let go if it’s a grudge on a deeply personal level. And that’s perfectly understandable.

I’m loathe to discuss the next circumstance, but I must. One night in ’97 when I was very firmly in my cups at the end of the night (as I was wont to be at the time; another friend recently likened it to “Hurricane Andrew blowing in”), I said something profoundly stupid about her. I don’t remember what it was, except that it had something to do with the difference in our ages. I’m not sure that she remembers what it was either exactly, but it was hurtful enough that she completely cut me dead as though I’d never existed. And I’m sure I deserved it. It also didn’t help that I was reviewing the Back Stage Bistro Awards that year and pretty much panned the show that she’d directed, because if I wasn’t on her roster du merde before, I sure was now. A few weeks later, at the MAC Awards afterparty, she seriously looked like she wanted to punch my lights out. And believe you me, this is a woman who could take me out with a solid smack. But she didn’t, thank goodness, or I might not still be here to tell the tale.

Then, as many know, began her homelessness. I knew none of this at the time. BUT…in January of ’08, she appeared in a benefit show at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South, and she seemed genuinely happy to see me. I made it a point to say, “Terri, I’m so sorry we left our friendship on the wrong foot and I hope you can forgive me. I was a completely different kind of person then and I said something profoundly stupid. I can’t bring myself to apologize enough, and I hope we can be friends again.” She gave me a hug and a kiss and said, “It’s bygones, honey. Bygones. You and I will always be friends.” Which is good enough for me.

As I write this, she’s preparing to open in Follies at the Marquis, in the same version of Sondheim’s musical which received decidedly mixed reviews, but where it is always said that Terri walked off with the whole first act after singing “Who’s That Woman?” in the character of Stella Deems. Broadway has always been where Terri has belonged, and so shall Broadway have her once again and deservedly so.

I love that she’s my friend, and I’ll never stop loving her as a person.

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