It’s always amazed me that some people can watch a concert or musical with no visible emotional response. I always say that it’s cultural—that in the African (American, Caribbean, Latinx, etc.) tradition we “talk back,” “chat back,” “shout back” “sing back”—and though I know different communities have different cultural norms, it is nonetheless jarring to see how some white people (especially the older, out-of-town Broadway folk) can hear music, sweet music—pop music even—and remain transfixed in their seats as if weighted by a centrifugal force. Nan a head nod, toe-tap, or handclap.
And this was the case during at least the beginning of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, a whirling dervish of a production starring the incomparable Adrienne Warren, who sang, danced, and embodied every aspect of Anna Mae Bullock, aka Tina Turner, in more than 2 hours and 45 minutes without ever missing a beat. Warren not only possessed the vocal chops of Turner but as the production continued, her smoky singing voice amazingly deepened as well (she also acquired what some believed to be Turner’s slightly affected speaking accent down, too). Warren had the moves like Tina (Jagger, bow down), and gave a high-energy performance that included the frenetic stage energy that Turner, who turned 80 on Tuesday, is known and lauded for—that and those legs. In short, Warren is unforgettable, blissfully talented and sure to be Tony-nominated.
Like most jukebox musicals, Turner’s story is told chronologically, beginning with Tina as a child in Nutbush, Tenn., with one pretty significant divergence: the music is not in sequential order. So songs like “Better Be Good to Me” played in the first act, when Ike Turner asks a young Tina to marry him, and “Private Dancer” opened the second act, post-Ike, when Tina was living in Las Vegas with her children, “cleaning toilets by day” and singing in cheesy lounges at night. For some theatergoers, it worked; for others, not so much, but clearly, the music is what brought most out, so for me, it was a nonfactor.
Besides Warren, standout players include Daniel J. Watts as Ike Turner—he of gleaming teeth, profound musicality, dripping sexuality, and a hair-trigger temper (apparently, Ike, who died in 2007 of a cocaine overdose, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his later years). Unfortunately, Watts played Turner so well that it was hard to empathize with him (and he admits that he is sometimes booed at curtain call). Dawnn Lewis was a word as Tina’s mother (I was like, Julissa got chops!!!!) and we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about young Anna Mae, Skye Dakota Turner; though she’s only in the play for a few scenes, she blew the house down with her powerful voice and adorable cheeks.
As with the aforementioned folks who sat like zombies in their seats, we all come to art with our culture, experiences and where we are in our lives. As a 40-something-year-old black woman with children, I first marveled at just how young Turner was when she ran away to sing with Ike (just 17), and later, her profound courage and dignity in bravely starting again, in middle age, with a gaggle of sons and doing rock and roll music—something virtually unheard of from black artists at that time. And Tina literally rocked that shit. And she remade her life—after all of that trauma, after all of that abandonment and abuse, into a literal Act 2, where she found an unlikely love and profound success. It was intensely inspiring.
I was also moved by a relationship in the play that had never been explored (or at least, never told widely—not in the ahistorical What’s Love Got to Do With It film starring Angela Bassett, nor her two autobiographies, I, Tina and My Love Story): that of Tina’s often troubled relationship with her mother Zelma, played superbly by Lewis.
Tina was abandoned by her mother as a child; they eventually reconciled in St. Louis, but it was clear her mother favored her sister, the more traditional Alline. Tina was always told she was “too much” and she had a mother who tried to shut down her loudness; a mother who had herself been abused; a mother who later admitted that she wanted to shield Tina from her gift; a mother who still supported Ike after all those years because “the man was trying.” So what of this thing with (black) daughters’ often fraught, cyclical, complicated relationships with their mothers? It brought another layer of depth into Katori Hall’s book in what could have just been the story of Tina’s life; Ike Turner was not the only relationship that molded Tina Turner into the grand diva and superstar that she remains to this day.
As my companion and Tina Turner superfan Amanda said after the play: with a soundtrack like that, it was Tina’s to lose. And by the way, by the musical’s end, everybody was up on their feet for a rousing concert performance, proving that dey is a Gawdt—and she’s a black woman. And one of her incarnations, one of her spirits, is one Anna Mae Bullock, who became Tina Turner.
Happy Birthday, Miss Turner. Because you lived, we are all so much richer. Catch Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and rock out when the spirit moves you!
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre Theatre on Broadway. Tickets are available for purchase here.