Colors and Queens: House of Dinah Dec 9, 2016

by Elissa Favero

“What do they know about colors?

What do they know about Queens?”


Mother Tamika, the beloved grande dame of the House of Dinah, poses these questions in the opening monologue of Jerome A. Parker and Andrew Russell’s show, playing through Sunday at On the Boards. She tells us here her story of hard work, exploitation, and ultimate deliverance and introduces us to the person and music of Dinah Washington, the so-called “Queen of the Blues.” Mother Tamika’s questions stayed with me through the next hour and a half as I took in fierce costumes and performances, as I listened to the backstories of the House of Dinah’s other sisters, as these womxn of color told of both trauma and triumph. What, indeed, do I know? I’m admittedly an outsider to this world, a white, cisgender girl. I remembered the sacred space of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the sanctuary that was the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. I thought of the outsiders who had come to them, who had been welcomed in only to breach, with hate and violence, the sanctity of those spaces and of the bodies who gathered there in love and communion. And yet here I was, invited in with generosity to an intergenerational conversation about black female and transgender identity, performance, and empowerment. My role, as I took my cue from Mother Tamika’s words, was to let go of preconception and certainty, to watch and listen with care and empathy and humor to these queens.  

The show’s House of Dinah is, like Mother Emanuel was, like Pulse was, a safe space. House of Dinah’s younger sisters, Wilhelmina and Lady/Humberta, are there—even if they don’t know it—to name their abuse, to let the lies they’ve put up in response fall away so that they can embrace their beauty and their gifts of voice and dance, especially dance. “Radical visionary feminism encourages all of us to courageously examine our lives from the standpoint of gender, race, and class so that we can accurately understand our position within [and fight against] the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” bell hooks asserts in her 2000 book Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. (p. 116) Wilhelmina and Lady/Humberta are in the House of Dinah to examine their pasts and then go back into the world armed with the strength of self-knowledge.  

The parts of the show hardest for me to watch and understand were the forced servitude of the younger sisters and the simulated rape Mother Felicia perpetrates against Lady, by this time called Humberta. I can appreciate deference to elders in the House of Dinah. I welcomed the show’s contentious repartee—who doesn’t love to see shade expertly thrown? But when this system of hierarchy assumed the form of control and physical violence, I wondered if what is worst in the outside world wasn’t being let in here too, whether this wasn’t a continuation of the abuse so often committed there.  

bell hooks writes also in her book of “The dream of replacing that culture of domination with a world…grounded in communalism and social democracy, a world without discrimination based on race or gender, a world where recognition of mutuality and interdependence would be the dominant ethos…” (p. 110)  

“Dream when you’re feeling blue…Dream, and they might come true,” Queen Dinah advises us all.