Camilla Beeput as Lena Horne
Camilla Beeput as Lena Horne
© McVirn Etienne

Lena Horne is a largely forgotten American icon, who worked from the '30s right up to the '80s and '90s. She was an activist, a singer, an actress and a dancer who had amazing resilience in a really tough industry at a time when she experienced a lot of limitations based on the way she looked. She was an incredible artist and a courageous woman.

She came from a very learned family. Her paternal grandmother was a suffragette but her mother was an actress, so she lived a double life of being the child of a struggling actress and the grandchild of an educated and politicised family.

Her political streak was always there, but it came out later in life, particularly in the 1960s. It was when she was blacklisted by Hollywood for her associations with Paul Robeson and his associations with communism, that she got swept up with the civil rights movement. It was at that point that she found a vehicle for her activism.

Lena Horne in 1961
Lena Horne in 1961
© Friedman-Abeles

In Hollywood, in that era, you weren't really meant to speak up so you showed your politics in other ways. One of her career highlights was working at Café Society which was the first racially integrated place in New York, run by a fascinating character called Barney Josephson. Barney called it the wrong place for the right crowd. I think it was then that Lena met Robeson, who had actually been mentored by her own grandmother. Lena used her singing voice as part of her activism, she sang in Missisppi in a church there among people who were fighting for their rights. So she showed her solidarity by going down south and being with people and sharing her talent and her fame and showing up on marches.

She was also part of a meeting with Bobby Kennedy which involved Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin and other notable figures to work out a solution and demand changes from the Kennedy government. Billie Holiday sang "Stormy Weather", but I think most people associate the song with Lena Horne. It became her calling card throughout her career. The show is called Stormy and it's a reference to that and to her tumultuous life.

My show is a musical, which takes the audience on a journey of her entire life. So I play Horne as a 60 year-old, her grandma, her father, figures from her past and the little Lena Horne too. Me and a five piece band tell the story.

I was looking for a rich subject to get my teeth into and when I started to dig deeper into her story I discovered her life was so interesting. Being a singer, an actor and a mixed race performer –I related to lots of things within her life.

Stormy: The Life of Lena Horne runs tonight at Norwich Playhouse and then tours to Bath Festival on 24 May and Aldeburgh.

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