|"FREEda Slave: Mask of a Diva," presented by Ron Richards Productions & Free Yo' Self Productions in association with Joanne Morris at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6541 Santa Monica Blvd. Wed. 8 p.m, Sun. 3 and 7 p.m. July 7-Sept. 26. $12.(323) 939-4217.
Writer/director Darryl LeMont Wharton and a one-man subject/star Dale Guy Madison took a chance and drove 3,000 miles-all the way from Baltimore, Maryland to bring their show to Los Angeles. FREEda Slave made its entrance without much fanfare, but actor Madison's entrance down that Dali-esque, curving white staircase as Freeda the diva-that's another matter. (The skewed staircase is actually a permanent set piece of the hit show Reefer Madness, which shares the space, and it fits right in.) Dazzling in purple sequins, becomingly bewigged, sinuously graceful, definitely gorgeous, actor Madison makes a breathtaking entrance worthy of the diva he is.
With Medea: The Musical also at the Hudson and When Pigs Fly at the Coronet and Miss Desmond Behind Bars at the Court, Die, Mommy, Die at the Coast, and Miss Coco Peru's Universe at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, camp is having a field day in L.A. Camp is often delightful, and FREEda Slave fits the category in a sense-but goes deeper. Madison's heartfelt, ultimately emotional performance in what is essentially his real life story takes us beyond camp into something more meaningful and universal.
We see a lot of autobiographical one-man shows, but never too many good ones, and this is a good one. FREEda Slave: Mask of a Diva is its doubly significant title-a multiple play on words that delivers the gist of this actor's confessional apologies. Madison does some soul-searching, asks puzzling questions, and even comes up with a few satisfactory answers. Why was he impelled as a youngster to dress up in his sister's clothes? Why did he wake up from a dream with a seemingly heaven-sent answer to his problems-a conviction of his calling? Why was he willing to lose the love of his life (and he did) for the freedom to dress in women's clothes? As Alfred/Freeda, the character he plays, Madison eloquently explains that clothes may make the man but do not make the man a woman. He is acting, role-playing; he remains a man, a black man, a gay man, which is difficulty confounded-but after all a man. "Before I'm gay, I'm human," he avers. "Before I'm black, I'm human." Speaking directly to the audience, he declares that most of all, "FREEda Slave is a tribute to all the women I've ever loved and admired: Coretta, Maya, Aretha, Diana, Gladys, Lena," and others both fictional and real, including his sister Fredrika, the wondrous super-diva Miss Marlena, who virtually adopted him ("the first time I had a mother"). He paints the picture of what Native Americans called a "berdache", a perfect combination of man and woman in one person. Madison is an ingratiating performer, eminently likable, genuinely sweet-spirited, good-looking as a man and better-looking in drag (he has great legs). He gets expert help here from the lighting designer (uncredited), from recorded music (sometimes skillfully lip-synched) by Gladys Knight, Billie Holiday, The Supremes, etc… and most especially from the playwright/director Wharton. FREEda Slave is a seamlessly collaborative expression.
The cozy dressing room set, so splendidly enhanced by that baroque staircase, is furnished with leopard-skin artifacts from Madison's home (He has a thing for leopard-skin.) And he convinces us that, as fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, so divas gotta be divas.