Cookin’ at the Cookery
LaVon Fisher-Wilson (left) and Dayna Jarae Dantzler star in the Ensemble Theatre Co. production of “Cookin’ at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter,” which runs through June 24. (David Bazemore photo)

Jazz and blues legend Alberta Hunter and her epic life story make fantastic raw material for a play.

Playwright and director Marion J. Caffey spins a theatrical experience from it that only enhances the richness. Powerful actor-vocalists Dayna Jarae Dantzler and LaVon Fisher-Wilson bring Hunter throughout her life and those who had the greatest impact on her journey to such vibrant life that you just want it to never end.

For Santa Barbara, Ensemble Theater Co.’s current production of Cookin’ at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter offers an inspiring dose of cures-what-ails-ya and closes ETC’s season with joy and hope.

Hunter’s singing career spanned her hometown of Memphis, Chicago, New York City and the Broadway stage, Europe and points beyond.

Her amazing comeback in 1977 at age 82 after a 20-year-plus break from performing would be fodder enough for a play, but the rest of her story is just as stage-worthy.

Raised by a single mother, young Alberta had two callings, to sing and to travel. We watch as all her dreams come true, fueled by her inimitable drive and powerful voice.

But the day she’s called home from a USO tour upon her mother’s death, she stops singing, goes back to school and becomes a nurse.

Dantzler’s range both as a singer and actor brings depth and breadth to the performance.

As “young Alberta,” she portrays the child, teen, ambitious young adult and mature Alberta on a USO tour during World War I and the Korean War with inflection and dynamism that make you feel time passing, and makes you enjoy the ride a great deal.

Dantzler’s agile acting brings to life other characters in the play, including Barney Josephson, the shakey diner/cabaret owner who got Hunter to sing in public again at age 82; a rad music producer in the 1960s; Carrie Mae Ward, the woman who captured Hunter’s heart when she was nearly 30; and even Louis Armstrong!

It’s Dantzler’s agility that makes the play feel much larger than it really is.

As “Alberta,” Fisher-Wilson makes us part of the story. The play culminates with a fantastic set from The Cookery stage, and Fisher-Wilson makes you feel like you’re right there at Hunter’s show. And you can see why folks lined up around the block for years to see one of her two or three nightly sets.

Leading up to that, she portrays Alberta’s mother, and narrates and addresses the audience with Alberta’s lively, frank, funny style.

I could listen to Fisher-Wilson’s warm, deep vocals all day long. It’s interesting that little mention is made in the play of Hunter as a songwriter, but several of the charts in the play are her own.

The jazz trio (piano, bass and drums) led by music director and keys George Caldwell perform center stage throughout the show, and they have a few spoken lines, too. They’re so integral to the storyline that you come away believing Caldwell’s real name must be Gerald.

Along with John Hart on standup bass and Rayford Griffin on drums (their names are all you learn about them from the program), Caldwell leads church orchestras (where Hunter makes her solo debut with the “jump-up songs” she loves) and a jazz nightclub band (brushes on the drums!) and creates a soundscape for all the moods of life: aspiration, love, loss, joy, rebirth and triumph.

Cookin’ at the Cookery runs through June 24, so you have plenty of chances to give yourself the gift of this wonderful piece of theater.

Click here for tickets, or call 805.965.5400.

Noozhawk contributor and local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act. She can be reached at The opinions expressed are her own.