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Wanda takes Bermuda for a walk in Dorothy’s shoes

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Wanda Ray Willis is bringing her show, Walking in Dorothy Dandridge’s Shoes: Her Final New Beginning, to Bermuda this weekend (Photograph supplied)

Wanda Ray Willis is to bring Dorothy Dandridge to life this weekend in a one-woman musical that she wrote and stars in.

The legendary actress, singer and dancer was the first African-American to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Ms Ray Willis was so inspired that she wrote Walking in Dorothy Dandridge’s Shoes: Her Final New Beginning. She also created a documentary about the late actress. And a full-length feature film is in the works.

The musical focuses on September 8, 1965. Then 42, Dandridge was twice divorced and her career had stalled but she was hopeful for its revival. The following day, however, she was found dead, having overdosed on antidepressants.

“The words just seemed to come off of my computer when I was writing it,” Ms Ray Willis said. “It’s based on Dorothy Dandridge’s last full day with us, where she was contracted to star in two films by her manager, Earl Mills. She was determined to rebuild her career. She was set to start September 10 in a gig at the New York Club Basin Street East Grill and a gig in the Carnival Room of the Sheraton Hotel.

“It’s her last day, she's packing, energetically dancing around the house. She has loads of gowns to pack — she was known for her gowns — and she has sheet music to organise.”

Walking in Dorothy Dandridge’s Shoes is an “energetic and enthusiastic, brightly coloured production” that is told as a timeline from 1922 — when Dandridge’s mother leaves Dandridge’s father five months into her pregnancy — until 1965, when the actress “goes to sleep anticipating all those things coming to her”.

“I really want people to know her story, her real story. The story was told a bit by Halle Berry in [the 1999 film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge] but after you watch the movie you don't see her as a strong woman. But she really, really was and her life was very inspirational. Yes, she had some down times — everybody does — but she always rose up from those times and she always kept going in spite of,” Ms Ray Willis said.

“Young people, they need to know about her. People don’t know she was involved in civil rights, people don’t know she was in over 41 films, people didn't know she was the first female industry professional — black or white — to make $300,000 per year in 1959. Can you imagine the barriers she had to cross to make that amount of money?”

Actress Dorothy Dandridge is the subject of a musical written by Bermudian Wanda Ray Willis (Photograph supplied)

Elizabeth Taylor was paid a “record-setting” $1 million to star in the 1963 film, Cleopatra. According to Ms Ray Willis, Dandridge had expected to be cast in the role.

“She was put in the costumes and took photos and everything but they gave it to Elizabeth Taylor. And they used Dorothy's skin tone to create the make-up for Elizabeth Taylor because Cleopatra was not white. All of these things are encompassed in my musical; it's a learning experience. And so young people, it would be great if they researched things like this because it gives them inspiration to achieve their goals and forge ahead in spite of whatever barriers they face.”

Ms Ray Willis first took the show to the stage in 2016 and has performed it every year since in theatres across California.

“This show in Bermuda, our premiere international show, is show No 45. This is a truly one-woman show. I designed the set, I designed the costuming; in some instances having to sew. I do the hair — I found a wig and I had to cut it to suit the style of Dorothy. I do the make-up. I did the choreography and I wrote all of the songs and I wrote the script, in its entirety, from my research.”

Ms Ray Willis first heard about Dandridge sometime around the age of 6.

She was always singing and dancing and her aunt Dora told Barbara and Eldon Raynor how much their daughter reminded her of “that girl Dorothy”.

Shortly after university she began acting professionally and “played a small part” of Dandridge in the musical North on South Central in the early 1990s.

Tickets for Walking in Dorothy Dandridge’s Shoes: Her Final New Beginning are available (Photograph supplied)

While working on another production, Lonely Girl, she was nominated for an NAACP award for her portrayal of Dandridge, and started writing her own show.

“When that stopped I finished up my production, Walking In Dorothy Dandridge’s Shoes: Her Final New Beginning. I wrote it emphasising her achievements in society because throughout her career, and even after she passed, there was nobody that really acknowledged her achievements in society and in the industry. And there were so many.”

The show has been nominated for and received several awards.

Ms Ray Willis, who returns to the island regularly, was thrilled to have the opportunity to finally bring it here.

“I was talking with Shine Hayward. I am ecstatically thankful that Shine and his company, Danji Productions, decided to do it. Bermuda is my home town. I'm residing in California but Bermuda is always close to my heart. Bermuda is where I began, Bermuda is where I have people that inspired me at a very young age.

“If they fill those seats, that'd be great. It’s only maybe an hour and ten minutes. I go straight through with no intermission. An audience doesn't even know the time has passed.”

See Wanda Ray Willis inWalking In Dorothy Dandridge’s Shoes: Her Final New Beginning on Friday and Saturday in the Athene Theatre at the Bermuda College at 7.30pm and 9.30pm. Tickets, $50, are available at www.bdatix.bm

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Published September 07, 2022 at 8:02 am (Updated September 08, 2022 at 8:05 am)

Wanda takes Bermuda for a walk in Dorothy’s shoes

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