On August 3rd, Azusa Sheshe Dance will take her performance of Houn’ Dawg: The Life and Times of Big Mama Thornton to the Harlem MIST stage. Dance, herself, wrote the show, inspired by Big Mama Thornton’s extraordinary legacy; she takes on the role of the iconic but often under-recognized blues pioneer. (Thornton is responsible for authoring some of the most enduring songs in the genre, including “Ball and Chain,” “Let’s Dance,” and the eponymous “Hound Dog,” made famous by Elvis Presley.)
In the first part of her interview with Honeysuckle, Dance discussed how she began working on the show, and how she got it to the place it is today. In the second part of the interview, Dance reveals more about how she got involved with the theatrical world, why she moved to New York, and she delves deeper into her relationship to Big Mama Thornton herself.
An incredible performer, a masterful storyteller, and an extraordinarily compassionate, vibrant presence, Dance is not a performer to miss out on. Houn’ Dawg promises to be an inspiring, moving musical that will uplift a story that needs to be told while highlighting a voice that everyone should hear.
EDEN GORDON: It seems like something bigger is making it all happen. So does the story follow the plot of her life?
AZUSA SHESHE DANCE: The story pretty much starts from the beginning of her life till the end. It talks about her history, growing up in Alabama with her family, all the ups and downs, trying to be heard on a larger scale, even being at the Apollo—that’s where she got her name—and again, tying it back to my connection to her, I’ve been on the Apollo stage twice.
I really feel in my heart there is a little of Big Mama Thornton in me. I’ve done the best I could. She’s not very popular or well known, and on the Internet there’s a lot of repeated information. I wanted specifics, details—what was she like, what was she not like, what would she tolerate or not tolerate, how did she dress, how did she move, how did she speak?
I always ask friends and strangers about how the show was after they see it, and they’re like, ‘I felt like Big Mama was there’. That’s what I want—I want to lose me, I want it to be her onstage, I want her story to be true. There’s not a song in the show that you cannot go on YouTube and see her singing. It doesn’t make sense for me to throw in a blues song just because I like it. I need it to be true to her, the way she liked to sing it. Even going through the music with the band—they’d be like, I know that song, and I’d be like no you don’t. It has to be played this way; we’re talking 1930s and 40s, not after it’s been modernized by another artist.
Were you always singing? Your voice is amazing.
I grew up in a church. In the South that’s what you do. I grew up singing between my mother and grandmother. When you’re surrounded by music so much, all the time, you just kind of pick it up.
During elementary school I started playing classical violin, and [I] went to college on a musical scholarship, so I feel like practicing violin for all those years and learning to read [music] really helped. I’m from Chattanooga, Tennessee; my maternal family is from the east, but in west Tennessee, I was introduced to the blues; that was my dad’s favorite, and I’d sit in the backseat of the car and listen to the blues. I feel like I met in the middle.
People always ask how I project my voice. I haven’t been to school for voice or anything, but in church, my sister and I would always try to out-sing each other. It’s just amazing how these little things in your life come together. That’s why I tell everybody, don’t ever view something you’re doing in your life as not important because you have no idea how it might help you in your future, even if it seems insignificant to you at the time.
Especially if it’s something you’re passionate about.
I enjoyed singing in the church, but I never sang in public or did musical theater until after my kids were in middle and high school. It all started when my kids finally persuaded me to watch Hairspray. I am a big fan of Queen Latifah, and that song she sings—”I Know Where I’ve Been”—I fell in love with it.
That summer, when the local theatre center released their season, their finale show was Hairspray. My kids were like, ‘you gotta audition!’ and I’m thinking, you’re nuts, I’ve never done musical theater before, not gonna happen.
I just happened to be in the shoe store and I saw a pair of character shoes in my size. I put them on a shelf and thought, if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be. A year goes by and the auditions come up. So I go. I taught my kids, if you say you’re gonna do something, follow through. So even though I was terrified, I went. The turnout at the theater center was one of the largest they ever had; I was there until two in the morning auditioning.
Well, I didn’t get chosen. Two, three weeks go by; and I get a ding on my phone, and it says, ‘Are you still interested in a part?’
I went to the rehearsal, which was full of people who had been doing theater since they were three years old. I was like, ‘I’m from church, I can’t do this’.
I was going to hand in the book and never show back up. But at the end of the rehearsal, the piano player asked me to go over a song—“I Know Where I’ve Been.” I was so nervous; I’d never done musical theatre before. But I was thinking, thinking, he’s only gonna play a couple of bars, it’s not a big deal.
He never looks at me, and we sing the whole song. I am terrified; I’m thinking, you have really screwed this up… The next thing I know, the piano player jumps up, he slams down the piano top and he says, “This gonna be a damn good show.” And everybody around is on their feet applauding, in tears.
It’s funny how you can be your [own] worst critic. Everything in my brain was saying, ‘you need to go, you shouldn’t be here’—and everybody else was saying, ‘this is where you need to be’. I’d never felt so much love and acceptance in my life.
When I perform, I’m not just performing for me; I’m performing for everyone else because I want them to feel that same love and acceptance I feel onstage. Life is so hard, and if that one person can make a difference in someone’s life, then it’s worth it. That’s why I really love performing. I’m not looking to get rich, I’m not looking to be famous. As long as I can sing and perform I’m good. And pay my New York rent.
So [that’s] how I got into musical theater. From there I’d walk onstage and people would start applauding before I even got to my song. That love… We sold out every show for the season. I started doing gigs after that—corporation gigs, concerts…it was incredible.
After six years of doing that at home, the lease was up on my house, the department that I worked in closed down, my kids had graduated, and I was definitely living a true-life country blues song. I thought, if I gotta start over, why not New York? I had an aunt that lived here for 25 years who always said I should come—so she opened the door, and luckily I’ve been here three years with great success. Even if New York said you have to go back to Tennessee, I could go happy. I could say I came here and I had a great time.
You’re a great storyteller; so that bodes well for the show.
I love storytelling. I feel that’s what music does. I used to love reading books to children… it’s just all come together.
Sometimes when I’m walking down the street, I pinch myself. Really, you live here, you’re going to perform your one-woman show…it’s mind-blowing.
I’m just glad I can be a role model for other people in my family, to my children and other young people. You can do anything you want to, it doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, it doesn’t matter where you come from—if you believe in it, if it’s your passion, you can do it. And you don’t necessarily need other people’s help.
There’s love out there somewhere. It may not be in the circle that you’re in now, but you have to find that circle where that love and support is because once you have that, and once you believe, you can do anything. It’s about finding those people that love and accept you for who you are; that’s the most important thing. You don’t ever have to be anyone else. You don’t ever have to look a certain way. Always be true to you.
In today’s society everyone is trying to be cookie-cutter; but none of us are born to look like the next person, so why are we striving so much to be like someone else when you can just be you? It’s great enough, just to be you.
That’s why I love life, and why I can keep a smile on my face all the time. I really am loving life. I’m living—not just existing. A lot of people exist. You go to work, you come home, go to the grocery store—that’s existing—but are you really living? Are you doing what you want to do?
I feel like I’m on a second life and I’m enjoying every second. The way I look at it, it could be pulled away anytime. So I’m living it up.
Houn’ Dawg: The Life and Times of Big Mama Thornton, starring Azusa Sheshe Dance, will be performed at MIST Harlem on August 3, 2019. For tickets and hors’ d’oeuvres, visit https://mistharlem.com/mist-event/life-and-times-of-big-mama-thornton/ or contact Norman Cole at 212-539-6020.