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Sharing the story of inspiring screen icon

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Stars in her eyes: singer and actress Wanda Ray Willis (Photograph by David DaSilva)

Sometimes a simple comment can send a life spirally in a new direction. Wanda Ray Willis’s aunt once remarked that she sang “just like that Dorothy girl”, meaning actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge.

Ms Ray Willis was a small child and barely knew who the late Dandridge was, but it set up a lifelong fascination.

Decades later, the Bermudian has built an acting and singing career based on telling Dandridge’s story.

Ms Ray Willis, who now lives in Redondo Beach, California, has appeared in many stage productions about Dandridge’s life, including the award-winning California musical North on South Central, plus Dorothy Girl and Lonely Girl.

She will be sharing some of her work on Saturday at the Bermuda Entertainers’ Showcase.

Ms Ray Willis returns to Bermuda four times a year to see her parents, Eldon and Barbara Raynor, but this will be her first performance here for many years.

“I will be singing two songs from a new musical I have written, Walking in Dorothy Dandridge’s Shoes: The Final New Beginning,” she said.

“It opens at Kulak’s Woodshed in North Hollywood on May 29. I have written the script and all the songs. It will be my fifth production about her.

“At the showcase, I will have Cal Bezemer, a phenomenal American pianist, as my guest artist. We will segue into a jazz medley.”

Ms Ray Willis said Dandridge appealed to her because she kept rising despite all the odds against her.

“She was African-American and had to fight through racial barriers,” Ms Ray Willis said. “At the height of her career she checked into a hotel and told the front-desk concierge she wanted a dip in the pool. They told her the pool was closed and then had it drained for fear she would swim in it and offend white guests.”

Ms Ray Willis said Dandrige paved the way for women of colour in the 1950s and 1960s. She was the first person of colour to sing at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, and the first black person in America to make $300,000 a year, in 1955.

Ms Willis said that like Dandrige, she had also overcome a few things in her own career.

“Life is not a bowl of cherries,” she said. “You go through a lot.

“I was on Dating Game in 2004. I auditioned and got the part of the chooser. I went to get my face made up and took my bottle of foundation to match my skin colour.

“They put darker skin foundation on me to make me look blacker than I was. When they did my lips they outlined my lips to look bigger. I went to the green room and took everything off and redid my make-up to look like myself.”

Ms Ray Willis left Bermuda in 1989 after graduating from university.

“After graduation a little break came when I moved to California in 1993,” she said. “I joined the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Equity unions and began working on films and television shows.

“Creating, producing and starring in my own children’s television show, Spunk Bubble, a reading readiness programme, led to meeting more viable people in the industry.

“That encouraged me more to stay on the course and follow my goals.

“Around that time is when I began to get involved in theatre and would sometimes be in three productions per year, while also continuing to write music for my first solo CD in 2005, Here I Am.

She studied whenever she could to create more opportunities for herself.

“I love to rehearse, and play the piano to soothe my fears and anxieties,” she said.

“The hardest part for me is not seeing my parents more. I call them every day from California and miss them.”

The Bermuda Entertainers’ Showcase highlights Bermudian entertainers working overseas, including Twanée Butterfield, Lady Tyson, Mitchel “Live Wire” Trott, the Simons Brothers, Roy Richardson, Valerie Sherwood, Kion Simmons, the Big Chill with Tony Brannon, Kassie Caines, and limbo dancer Markita Joel. It also pays tribute to veteran Bermudian entertainers such as Shirley Dill, Everest DaCosta, Stanley Seymour, Clarence “Tootsie” Bean, Freeman “King” Trott and Gene Steede.

The event will be at The Fairmont Southampton, with doors opening at 7.30pm and the show beginning at 8pm.

General admission is $50 and $100 for VIP tickets, available from Music Box, Caesar’s Pharmacy, Robertson’s Drug Store and Balance Therapeutic Hair Spa. Part of the proceeds will assist the Gina Spence Productions Champions programme to assist children impacted by gun violence. For more information, see www.ginaspenceproductions.com, e-mail info@ginaspenceproductions or call 707-5224.

For more information about Ms Ray Willis see Wandaraywillis.org

Career of a trailblazer

For actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge, it was not easy to break down racial barriers.

In 1955 she was asked to perform in the movie The King and I, but she turned it down as she was reluctant to play the part of a slave.

No more films were offered to her until 1957, when she did Island in the Sun for Fox.

Throughout her career she was subjected to viscious gossip and was accused of everything from promiscuity to communism.

But she still collected accolades. She is perhaps best known for being the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 1954 film Carmen Jones.

She also won a Golden Globe in 1959 for her role as Bess in Porgy and Bess. She was in numerous other movies, many of them uncredited. However, she was the first black actress to receive a three-movie contract with 20th Century Fox with a salary of $75,000 to $125,000 per film. She was also a singer in venues such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theatre.

She died in 1965 at the age of 42 under mysterious circumstances. Some people believe she committed suicide, but a note was later thrown out by a court.

She is the subject of the 1999 HBO biographical film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Stage show: the poster for Wanda Ray-Willis’ new production, ‘Walking in Dorothy Dandridge’s Shoes: Her Final New Beginning’ (Photograph supplied)
Local talent: Bermudian actress and singer Wanda Ray Willis (Photograph supplied)