"SHE LOOKS JUST LIKE HER," Whispers my mother. As the bewitching actress Yvette Freeman finishes the first song in her moving tribute to Dinah Washington, "Dinah WAS". Strutting accross the stage in a glam-girl fur coat , glittering silver earrings, and devilish red nail polish, Freeman looks as explosive as dynamite. Yet the thought that drifts through my mind is... Where do I know this woman from? Glancing briefly at her bio in the glossy program, my mind is boggled when I realize that this is the same woman I've seen, not looking quite so diva, playing trauma nurse Haleh Adams on "ER", and the surly personnel manager on the bizarre sitcom "Working"Momentarily stunned by this revelation, I begin to wonder why television producers have deliberately chosen to portray Freeman in roles that don't translate her obvious beauty to the masses. As countless hours of TV reruns flash through my head, mind images of Freeman's characters chattering on the small screen reveal her as either charming or bitter--never alluring or exquisite. Although her work for the peacock network has helped propel her as an actress to be taken seriously, it's her brilliant portrayal of Dinah Washington that has the soul sonic potential of launching her career towards the stars, beyond the limitations of the box that is television.
Minutes later, after climbing the ornate staircase of translucent coke bottle glass and iron, Yvette Freeman ambles past a lobby of chatty cocktail sippers prattling in affected accents and walks into the hotel's Canal House restaurant. Soothing classical music flows like bathwater from the white Bose speakers, serving as an aural oasis of calm after crossing a desert of pretension. "I'll have an iced tea," she says, her voice much more gentle than the one projected from the stage at the WPA Theater. And her smile is sweeter than the Domino's sugar in her tea.
As a precocious girl-child coming of age in the uneventful suburbs of Wilmington,
Delaware, Yvette was quite fluent in understanding the language of the blues.
Be it the evil blues of her racist neighbors' piercing stares as she and her
older sister Bonnie jumped rope in the front yard, or the woozy off-key blues
of her Ma screeching "Baby, You've Got What It Takes," her painful
voice erupting like a rhythmless volcano. Or maybe it was the jumping-jack jazz/juke-joint
stomping standards that Papa Freeman, a professional pianist by trade, wailed
during his regular jam sessions.
"There was always music in our house," she remembers, laughing. "My mom didn't even care that she couldn't hold a note. If we tried to stop her, she would only sing louder. Which is why when I told my father I could sing, he made me prove it to him." While her brown-skinned girlfriends daydreamed of dancing in the streets like the Vandellas, the youthful Yvette imagined her sassy self in a rowdy Harlem nightspot popping yang with Lady Day, or on the gritty, south side of Chi-Town serenading the neon wilderness pool sharks, dice rollers, and card vultures with the mesmerizing Dinah Washington songbook. "My father used to play her records on the hi-fi when I was a child. I believe the first record of Dinah's I heard was 'What A Diffrence A Day Makes,' but it wasn't the last."
With her back facing the oversize window, the once cloudy sky is now bursting
with sunlight, and a beautiful white pigeon perches on the hotel's ledge. "I
was lucky because I had found an apartment in my sister's building, directly
across the hall from her," snickers Yvette. "Not that Bonnie was amused
by the idea. When we finally got to New York, my mother cried, my father smiled,
and my sister was completely disgusted that I was her new neighbor."
After having her graphic design portfolio rejected at various agencies, she decided that finding an acting gig couldn't be much harder than competing with the army of visual artists storming towards the same beach. Three months later, Yvette was on the dusty trail heading south with a repertory company known as Theater for the Forgotten, performing in prisons and random clubs. "I was making a total of $250 a week. Shoot, that was a lot of money for me, Plus going out on tour and per diem."
Rolling with her new thespian crew, Yvette also found moments to sneak off
to red light-bulb nightclubs to try to sit in with the piano player. Yet, just
as her bugged adventures could be pleasant, one in particular proved rather
scary. "Once there was almost a riot in one of the prisons because my friend
Lavern decided not to wear any panties that day," she sputters, having
to put down her glass of water. "It's not that she was worried about her
pantyline, the girl was just wild. So we're on stage giving a nice show when
one of the guys climbed on stage followed by others. The guards had to push
us into a cage to keep the guys away. All this over old Lavern shaking her booty,"
After leaving the group a few years later, Yvette became the ultimate rootless blues actress, performing on the road with Productions of The Wiz, Ain't Misbehavin' (which she also did on Broadway), in addition to staging a cabaret in Paris. "I had done Ain't Misbehavin' in Europe and just decided to stay," she explains. "I had hooked up with an American piano player named Jackie Lowe. But, after a while, I decided it was time to come home."
She soon wearied of New York, so Yvette packed her suitcases and zoomed to the factory of illusions known as Los Angeles. "I had met a woman in New York who sublet me her apartment in L.A. while she stayed in New York," Yvette recalls. "The building was on Ocean Front. Directly outside my window there were tables where people played chess, and at night the homeless people would read their books to my light." Soon, Yvette was Setting steady guest roles on sitcoms, such as Living Single , The John Larroquette Show, and Coach "When I was working on Coach, I met Oliver Goldstick who wrote the script for Dinah Was, she says. "He asked if I would be interested in doing a show on Dinah that was more than just a revue, People used to tell me all the time that my voice sounds like Dinah's, and folks in Chicago swore that I looked like her. Yvette felt a special kinship with the blues singer in another way--battling with the scale "Between the diets and the pills, Dinah was obsessed with trying to be skinny. Dinah never thought of herself as a drug addict because she took prescription medicine to help her lose weight and it messed up her heart," Yvette continues. "For a woman like myself who has tried every diet in the book, I can relate to her issues." After Yvette gave Goldstick a bulging garbage bag full of research on Dinah, along with personal interviews she did with Washington's surviving friends (Redd Foxx, Slappy White), younger relatives, and aged band mates, he began developing the script. In the meantime, Yvette was chosen to join the cast of the highly acclaimed ER. "I got my part on ER right at the time when I was seriously thinking of leaving show business," she explains. "Yes, I was working, but it just wasn't enough. I was driving around in a battered Pinto and still living in Venice. It was a little much after a while. I got the call that I earned the role the same day I auditioned, so I felt considerably lucky."
Gazing at her watch, Yvette notices that it's only a few hours before she has to adjust her flamboyant wigs and stylishly outrageous white fur coat and metamorphose into the buxom Queen of the Blues. Standing outside waiting for a cab, she says, "In my life, I've done stupid things that have ended up right. But right now I'm in two television shows, Dinah Was is a hit, and I've just finished recording my first CD. At this point in my life, I'm feeling pretty blessed".
©1998 MODE reprinted with permission Photography by Francois Dischinger