NEW YORK — In Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 flop "The Cotton Club," Lonette McKee, playing a beautiful torch singer, sang a haunting ballad called "Ill Wind." She knew of what she sang, for on screen and stage she has created a number of star-crossed characters, none more touching than the half-black/half-white Julie in "Show Boat" for which she won a Tony nomination in 1983 when the Houston Grand Opera revived the 1927 musical epic on Broadway.
Now, a decade later, as she prepares to open again next Sunday in the same role in the lavish new Harold Prince-Garth Drabinsky production at the Gershwin Theatre, McKee has the age-worn and slightly cynical air of someone who herself has been buffeted by life.
Asked what's happened in the intervening years to make this Julie different from the last, McKee responds with a throaty laugh, "Well she's lived, honey. She's 10 years older and she's been through a lot."
Indeed, since the actress last sashayed across the stage as Julie, her once-promising career has moved in fits and starts, with momentary bright turns, like her Billie Holiday in the 1986 Off Broadway success "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" and a series of small but flashy film roles in " 'Round Midnight," "Gardens of Stone," "Jungle Fever" and "Malcolm X." But, following the breakup of her marriage to Leo Compton, a high-school counselor, her career stalled so completely that she was forced to move to an embattled low-rent Brooklyn neighborhood with her new boyfriend, rock-musician Bryant McNeil, whom she met while working on her 1992 album, "Natural Love."
The tough breaks of the past may have bruised her psyche, but they haven't marked her physically. Sitting in her dressing room during rehearsal just prior to the start of previews, McKee, at 39, is still the arresting beauty whose 1976 film debut in "Sparkle" inspired critic Pauline Kael to write, "McKee has the sexual brazenness that screen stars Susan Hayward and Ava Gardner had in their youth."
That beauty, however, flashes with frustration and some anger when she talks about a career that has admittedly become less and less fulfilling for her. The exception, of course, is the opportunity to play the classic role of Julie, who "passes" until the discovery of her mixed-race origins banishes her and her white husband from Cap'n Andy's Mississippi showboat. Adapted in 1927 by Oscar Hammerstein from the Edna Ferber novel, the musical, at least in the first act, is dominated by Julie, and it is her tale of miscegenation and racism that gives it such dark and unsettling power. Though she abruptly disappears, she briefly returns in the second act to sing the torch anthem, "Bill," and, in this new stage version, to give a hint of the degradation and alcoholism that followed her disgrace.
"It's a great role and a great team, Hal and Garth, so when they made me an offer I couldn't refuse, I took it," says McKee, who had first turned down the offer to repeat the role of Julie before she knew that it was Prince who was directing.
The production itself ran into public protests against what many blacks deemed to be stereotypes before it opened in Toronto last September. But McKee says that the controversy was rendered moot once the production was on view. She does register some impatience with the fact that blacks have had to continually fall back on playing roles connected to their tragic past rather than their present contributions.
"Black actors are tired of the only roles being available to us are the 'historically correct' ones of the olden days," she says bristling. "Why do we always have to be offered roles where we're housekeepers and slaves? We were, and we have a lot to be proud of that past, but what about what we're bringing to the table today?"
With such a paucity of female roles, McKee has been unable to exploit the promise of stardom first predicted for her. She's long since stopped listening to the periodic puzzling in the press as to why she is not yet a household word.
"Tell 'them' I'll become a star when they start writing great roles for black women in films," she says, bemoaning the mostly white, mostly male power structure of the industry. "Russell Simmons and Spike (Lee) have made some progress but things really haven't advanced all that much."
In fact, it's rather surprising to note that McKee was actually the first black woman to play Julie in a major American production (Cleo Laine played it in London in the early '70s). Lena Horne was slated for the role in the 1951 film, but the studio got cold feet and cast Ava Gardner who slapped on dark makeup to play the chanteuse.