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The Man in the Dancing Shoes

Gregory Hines scores big on Broadway with Jelly's Last Jam.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Premier Issue, Autumn 92

It's close to curtain time at the Virginia Theater on Broadway, and backstage in his dressing room Gregory Hines is getting ready to put on his dancing shoes. They are bright and shining, brown and tan; on the bottom of each are two pieces of metal called taps, one covering the heel, the other the front of the sole.

"You've got to be sure the shoe fits comfortably and snugly," he says. "And you can choose from many different styles. But when it comes down to it, it's not the shoe that matters. It's what in your heart that counts."

Gregory Hines's heart has been in his shoes for most of his 46 years, as he has tap-danced his way into the heart of America. And soon on this hot Sunday afternoon, he will walk out of the dressing room door, head for the stage and go into his song and dance to thrill a sold-out audience with his portrayal of the great jazz composer Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly's Last Jam. In that role, Hines received this year's Tony Award as best actor in a musical.

As he prepares to go on, Hines is sitting before a mirror surrounded by photographs of his friends and family, talking about his life and his career: his new show, his childhood performances with his brother, Maurice, as a tap-dancing duo in Harlem, his Broadway success in Sophisticated Ladies, and his roles in movies such as The Cotton Club, White Nights, and Tap. And, as he speaks, his deep, dark expressive eyes and his gentle, relaxed friendly smile convey the warmth and happiness he has achieved by doing what he enjoys most.

"I just love to tap-dance," he says. "I've been tapping for 44 years, and for me, it's the easiest way I can express myself as an artist. I don't mean it isn't challenging. It's just that when I have my tap shoes on, I feel very self-confident. I feel like I can speak from my heart. It's a way I've always been able to get in touch with many different emotions. I put my shoes on and I start to dance, and it's clear to me what I'm feeling."

Hines usually arrives at the Virginia Theater about two hours before the show starts. "First I put the gel in my hair and slick it back," he says. "I have something to eat, I slowly begin putting on my makeup, and I go through my mail. It's time for me to relax. I make a few phone calls. And then, I begin to stretch, very slowly. I have a device called a Pro Stretch, which I use for the lower part of my legs. It's terrific for hamstrings, the Achilles tendon, the calf muscle. Then, as other people in the show come in, we talk for a bit. About an hour before curtain time, I start to get my mind right, to seriously consider the Jelly Roll Morton character--his feelings, his attitudes. And by the time they call half-hour, I'm ready to go on."

That character is a complex one because the Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly's Last Jam is not your typical Broadway-musical protagonist. Born to one of the oldest, most genteel Creole families in New Orleans, a family that vehemently denied its African-American heritage, Morton carried that same attitude throughout his life. "We are who we are, and we are not who we are not," his family would tell him. He was cruel and cutting to his friends and lovers. He called himself the inventor of jazz, but he refused to acknowledge the African-American roots of his music: "Beating on pots will never be music," he says in the show. And yet when he died, it was in the "colored wing" of Los Angeles County General Hospital.

"This show is a real departure for the American musical stage," Hines says. "Especially in terms of African-American musicals. Those kinds of shows are usually all singing and all dancing. Everybody's happy. I've been in those shows and was happy to be in them. But I think our situation now is different. We need to reach for something more. First of all, I don't think African-American people are particularly happy now. And if you show them as happy on the stage, it's not true. This is not to say that we shouldn't entertain, because that's what the musical stage is for. But we can also do more now, and learn something about ourselves, and the human condition, the condition of being an American."

Hines credits much of this aspect of "Jelly" to George C. Wolfe, the show's author and director. Bringing such a story to the stage, Hines says, "was a great gamble, because Jelly Roll Morton is not a hero; he's a human being and not a great one."

"I struggled, man," Hines says. "Some of the things Jelly says, that I have to say, I couldn't even say to the other actors during rehearsal. In one line, where I'm talking about Jelly as a young man, I say, 'classically trained by the finest musicians of the day, while others of darker hue lived in shacks and crooned the blues. 'Whew! And then I say to the woman I know loves me, 'Nobody knows me, but as far as bitches go, you come the closest.' And, I say to my best friend, Jack the Bear, I say, 'Why don't you just be a good little nigger and put on that coat?' For the first three weeks of rehearsal, I just couldn't say it. We'd get to those lines, and I would just hang my head. And George would say, 'It's all right. Don't worry about it. It will come.'"

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