LENA: A Moment with a Lady
Actress, singer and playwright Syndee Winters brings the legendary Lena Horne to life in this new theater work celebrating this Black American icon. Accompanied by a jazz quintet, Winters uses her powerful vocals to imagine Horne’s story in her own words as an activist, leader and pioneer in entertainment, who became one of the first Black women to break the color line in Hollywood.
Everyone loved Lena Horne.
Everyone loved what Lena Horne stood for.
Everyone loved her charisma, her personality,
her ability to draw you in, her warmth.
There'd be no Beyoncé and there'd be no Diana Ross
or Eartha Kitt without Lena Horne.
It dawned on me that people my age
aren't familiar with Lena Horne.
What if she was able to have her voice heard in the way
that she could freely speak today?
I'm Syndee Winters, and I am the actress
and playwright of "Lena: A Moment with a Lady."
And I don't know where to begin or if I want to begin.
I've been in shows like "The Lion King"
and "Hamilton" and "Pippin" and "Motown: The Musical."
I went to Miami Dade College.
As soon as I finished school, that same year,
I auditioned for "The Lion King" and I was cast as Nala
in Disney's "The Lion King" in the national tour.
And then a couple years after that,
I made my Broadway debut in the role.
And that moment changed my life.
I toured with "The Lion King" for three years
before coming back to New York City
and beginning this new journey with Lena Horne.
I started this project in my early 20s.
My friend dared me to put together a show.
He's like, "Whose story do you think you can tell?"
And then I hesitated.
And he was like, "What's that?"
And I said, "I don't know, man.
It's just in my mind, just maybe Lena Horne."
And he was like, "Oh, yeah. Lena Horne."
And we were on the phone,
so he just hung up the phone up on me like the gauntlet.
Bam. It was set.
So I created a crowdfunding campaign.
During the crowdfunding campaign,
I made my way back to Broadway in "Motown: The Musical."
And in "Motown: The Musical,"
a woman that I shared my dressing room with,
a woman named Marva Hicks,
was in "Lena: The Lady and Her Music" on Broadway.
And I had this amazing opportunity
to spend time with this woman.
And she shared with me stories about her time with Lena Horne.
And through that, things just started kind of lining up.
We chose to focus on the period of Lena's life
where the stakes seemed very high.
The 1960s during the civil rights era
and the March on Washington.
And we looked at this relationship between Lena Horne
and her very first black female musical director on Broadway,
Miss Linda Twine.
It's a conversation between
Miss Lena Horne and Miss Linda Twine.
I love jazz.
I'm innately a jazz singer and a jazz songwriter.
And I grew up in the world of jazz.
Both of my parents are jazz musicians.
So it runs through my veins.
I had, actually, a poster of Lena Horne on my wall
when I was a little girl growing up.
I was brought on board by Syndee Winters,
who is actually one of my really good friends,
and she brought me on because she'd heard a song that I wrote.
She came to one of my concerts and said,
"That song is perfect for my Lena show.
Can I use it?"
And at first I had just loaned her the one song,
and then she decided she wanted all original music for the show.
So I wrote the whole score.
♪ I'm alive but barely
♪ I can't go back to failin'
♪ I'm alive but barely
♪ Keepin' alive
♪ Keepin' alive
♪ Keepin' alive
♪ Keepin' alive
[ Cheers and applause ]
My mother would take me to Coney Island Boardwalk
and we'd dance a little and we'd sing a little,
and it was fun for a while.
And one day a man pressed a coin into my hand,
and something clicked inside my mother.
And she realized I had something useful.
But by the time she understood my value,
she'd become too sick to work,
and her husband couldn't find work either.
So she pulled me out of school
and got me an audition at the world-famous Cotton Club.
You know, I was too young to be working there,
but I look good,
and it looked like that was the only way we were going to eat.
So I smiled, I stepped,
and I kicked and Charlestoned my way in there.
And they wanted me to dance, I danced.
If they wanted me to sing, I'd sing.
I made $25 a week.
That was a lot of money back then.
There wasn't a lot of visibility
even in the '80s when I was growing up
of black women that were that elegant and that fabulous.
And so she was the kind of woman
that I wanted to be when I grew up.
And once I arrived in New York, I found that finding gigs
were harder to land than a World War II fighter jet.
But then I finally got one.
The sweetest job at Barney Josephson's Café Society.
I mean, the best in jazz was cooking in that little place.
Barney wanted me to sing the blues like Miss Billie Holiday.
And I didn't need to sing the blues. I just lived them.
I wanted to sing something less blue.
And I'd see Billie every now and then,
and we'd start talking, and I'm telling her my issues.
And one day she looks straight at me
and says, "You've got rent to pay,
you got babies to feed,
Lena, you go and sing the blues."
♪ Coming along with this serenade ♪
♪ Jumpin' along with this serenade ♪
♪ Feel the beat
♪ It tingles your toes
♪ On up through your feet
The concept of knowing your own voice,
the power of your own voice,
And one of the most powerful voices of that age,
of that time, of the golden era
and all the way through the 1980s and beyond
was Lena Horne's voice.
Her texture, her tone was so specific.
You could hear her, you could pick her out like that.
We wanted to create a voice that Lena can be heard through.
Any vehicle that Lena uses for communication,
it is through song.
And so that's why we all decided that an original score
and original music and lyrics was necessary for this.
But not only her vocal, her singing voice.
She used her speaking voice. She used her presence.
She used her platform to further a mission
that gave voiceless
and people who didn't have representation a place.
Not only African-Americans,
for Jewish Americans
and for others who she felt she could lend her platform to.
She made it such a priority for black and brown people
to be on film sets,
to be not only in front of the camera, but behind the camera.
And it's so important that people understand
that not only was she an American icon,
but she was also a civil rights activist.
[ Applause ]
Man: That's a wrap. Thank you, Miss Horne.
You see, I told you, you open the door and one memory,
and they all come flooding through.
My best friend...
Woman: Billy Strayhorn.
And "Stormy Weather."
The role that made me a star or solidified my star
or propelled my star. I don't know what.
Was it stormy weather for you
while you were singing "Stormy Weather"?
After the movie,
besides me and the shoeshine guy,
there was never another black person on those picture sets.
The NAACP, proud of the way they broke through,
asked me to be the one to bridge the color gap in Hollywood.
But it wasn't going very well.
White producers didn't know what to do with me.
Negro actors hated me.
To them, I was taking food
out of their mouths by being difficult.
They were all right with playing the roles that I turned down.
But that was a part of my deal that I agreed to.
I wasn't going to portray subservient roles.
So they kept me singing.
Just a singer in the picture.
Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Lena Horne,
no actual character.
And I have nothing to do with the plot,
intentionally, so they could cut my not-white,
not Carmen Miranda-looking self out of the picture
to play in the South.
There is a moment during the show
where she had been hired to perform for a USO show.
And she goes to perform and the African-American soldiers
were seated behind the prisoners of war.
She chose as an artist to forego whatever consequences
may have come her way
and she walked out into the audience,
past the white soldiers, past the prisoners of war,
and performed in the back for the black soldiers
with her back to everyone else.
I would love to see little girls of this age looking up to Lena
and seeing that it's possible to be that type of woman.
And I think that we could really use some more people
with that kind of guts.
And I hope that people will hear about her bravery
and take that to heart.
The show touches on identity, race, feminism, colorism,
and the ability to be yourself.
And the cost of that.
Who are these white people in the front row?
They're the prisoners of war?
Well, why is it that the black American soldiers
who put their lives on the line should stand behind them?
Let's see if they like the show better like this.
♪ Harder than a stone
♪ Sweeter than a rose
♪ Even hotter than molten lava
[ Sings indistinctly ]
♪ This is what it takes to be the golden one ♪
♪ This is all you need to be the chosen one ♪
♪ This is what it takes, this is what they take ♪
♪ This is how they make, I can't let them break ♪
♪ Everybody needs a moment in the sun to ♪
[ Applause ]
Linda, they kicked me off that tour so fast.
I just snapped.
I threw my career off a cliff.
When I saw all those Negro soldiers in the back,
they could barely see me.
I lost my mind.
Or I found my mind.
I walk off that stage,
made my way straight to my people,
and continued my show.
Honey, they kicked me off that tour so fast,
I'm surprised my shoes stayed on.
The message of this show is so important today
because it shows that no matter what your position in life,
you can fight for what you believe in.
I think that we need more people like Lena
who are just fearless and fight for what they believe in.