"DON'T EVER, EVER, GIVE UP"
That is the mantra of “Ella The Ungovernable,” a play about 15 year-old Ella Fitzgerald’s incarceration and eventual escape from Hudson, NY’s Training School For Girls in 1933, that has been on a meteoric rise ever since it debuted to the public to great critical and commercial success in February, 2020.
Why has "Ella The Ungovernable" so resonated with the public? All you need to do is take a look at what's happening on the streets of America right now and you'll know exactly why.
"Ella The Ungovernable" takes place in a penal institution where the main characters are stuck and victimized by daily abuse. It is not only a pointed allegory of African American incarceration throughout the centuries but also one of life in America under Donald Trump. But what really differentiates the play is that rather than giving into hopelessness, the main characters (as exemplified by the main characters of Ella and Alice) continue to defy and persevere, until, at the end, they emerge triumphant. It is a sometimes bleak story with a very happy ending -- an ending with a purpose:
“I wrote this play to try to encourage and uplift what I perceived to be a very demoralized population,” says McDonald. “I was concerned that people had already given up. Like any artist, I had no idea whether my idea would resonate with the general public at all. The fact that it has indicates to me...and to us….that there is a particular need for this kind of story of hope here in 2020."
After making its debut the weekend of February 14 and 15 in Valatie, NY, "Ella The Ungovernable" was offered theaters in Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Kingston and Monticello to go on a mini-tour of Upstate New York during the Spring. Then, of course, the pandemic hit, scuttling all of those plans.
At the same time, playwright David McDonald was in discussions with Crystal Field, the legendary founder of NYC's own Theater For The New City about debuting the play in New York City in the fall. A month into the pandemic, McDonald and Field decided to launch their collaboration earlier, by doing a live, Zoom, staged reading of the play. Here is that staged reading on YouTube:
Live Zoom Staged Reading Of Ella The Ungovernable
As it stands now, the target date for launching the play on the main stage of Theater For The New City is September, 2020, contingent, of course, on financing and the course of the pandemic.
The number of $100,000 was come up with by consulting several theater professionals -- that was their median range for what it would cost to mount a union production over a two to four week run in New York City. (If anyone is interested in becoming a substantial investor in the play, we would be more than happy to share with you our projected budget.)
We are seeking to raise the funding through two primary avenues -- traditional theater producers/investors and crowdsourcing like this on GoFundMe. Although we have no issues with fundraising through the traditional route (i.e. theatrical producers), we are really hoping to raise the lion's share of the funding through GoFundMe.
Why? Well, it's primarily a question of autonomy and D.I.Y. spirit. That message of "Don't Ever, Ever, Give Up" really starts with us! People have been doubting us from the beginning, and every step we take forward gives us more determination to do it our own way.
This is a peoples' play. We gathered the cast through friends, and friends of friends. We want to put it together with as much of a sense of it being a cooperative as possible, sharing the profits and benefits whenever possible, too. In the same sense, we would like our play to remain fiercely autonomous and independent of corporate money. Can we do it? We shall see! Nothing has stopped us yet!
Please be a part of our team by contributing either financially, through sharing this page on social media, or through your own creativity. Got a skill that you think might come in handy for the production? Or a friend or connection you think might be interested in helping us? Please let us know and send us an email! As the saying goes, "it takes a village." In this case, it is a global village, and maybe one day, your own village will be putting on its own version of "Ella The Ungovernable!"
MORE ABOUT THE PLAY: (THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM AN ARTICLE IN THE ALBANY TIMES-UNION)
Playwright David McDonald first learned about the Ella Fitzgerald story several years ago while living in Hudson, NY., the location of the story. Back in 1933, a then-unknown young girl named Ella Fitzgerald was incarcerated at Hudson, NY’s, Training School For Girls.
Very little is known about her incarceration except that she is presumed to have escaped after less than a year at the institution and she won the first-ever Amateur Night At The Apollo Theater shortly thereafter, commencing a swift rise to fame.
This video, directed by playwright David McDonald, tells the basics of the Ella narrative:
The Original Ella Trailer
When McDonald first heard the story, he recognized its allegorical power immediately:
“On a surface level, it was probably the greatest allegory for centuries of African American incarceration I had ever heard,” McDonald says. “Plus, it’s the story of people being trapped with no visible means of escape. I feel that this is the way half of the country feels living under the Donald Trump regime.”
McDonald has primarily been a filmmaker over the past fifteen years, and his initial idea was to make a dramatic film about Fitzgerald’s incarceration, shot at the original Hudson locations where everything had transpired in 1933. After trying in vain to raise funds for such a film, a friend of McDonald’s suggested he start the project as a play first.
“I fell in love with that idea immediately for a variety of reasons,” recalls McDonald. “First, I love the idea of involving the community in a creative project. As artists, a lot of us face the dichotomy of doing most of our work while in private while hoping our art reaches the broadest swath of the public as possible,” says McDonald.
“Starting the Ella Fitzgerald project as a community-based theatrical project was a way of taking my art and making it art for the people, involving the community in every aspect of the production, from acting to lighting to staging, makeup, costumes and promotion.”
McDonald first started directing the theatrical production in Hudson in June of 2019, doing casting and rehearsals in a gallery on Warren Street and at The Hudson Area Library. Cast members included a wide swath of the community, including Hudson Alderwoman Tiffany Garriga playing Ella’s wicked Aunt Edna and WGXC news reader Philip Grant playing Apollo Master of Ceremonies Ralph Cooper.
“Ella The Ungovernable” ended up debuting on the weekend of February 14/15, 2020, at The Valatie Community Theatre in Valatie, NY, about twenty minutes south of Albany. The play was a massive success, selling out both nights and leading to other offers of theaters in Albany, Kingston, Troy and Schenectady. The plan, in fact, had been to go on a weekend tour of various venues in Upstate, New York, followed by a hoped-for NYC debut at The Theater For The New City in Greenwich Village this summer. Then, overnight, the pandemic struck, and every theater around the world seemingly shut down overnight.
“When the shutdown happened, I, like every playwright in the world, had to deal with the sudden reality that no productions were going to be happening anywhere, any time soon,” says McDonald. “Then, about a month after it started, I started to see how plays and productions around the world were adapting, using things like Zoom and YouTube to debut new works and keep the theaters active debuting new presentations.”
McDonald had already been in touch with Crystal Field, the legendary founder of Theater For The New City, for months. “The plan had already been to do something this summer. We just decided to speed it up a bit.”
As it stands now, the physical version of the play "Ella The Ungovernable" will be making its debut on the main stage of Theater For The New City as soon as the pandemic allows and the money is raised for the production.
IMPORTANT LINKS TO OTHER ARTICLES ABOUT ELLA FITZGERALD’S INCARCERATION
N.Y. Times (The Gap In Ella Fitzgerald’s Life) First Article Ever About Ella's Incarceration
The “Ungovernable” Ella Fitzgerald -- Prison Public Memory Project
LINKS TO OTHER ARTICLES ABOUT PLAYWRIGHT DAVID MCDONALD AND HIS ELLA FITZGERALD PROJECT
NPR Interview With Playwright David McDonald and Actress Alexis Ward (Ella) May 28, 2020
"Pandemic Won't Stop Ella The Ungovernable"
Albany Times-Union (Cover Story, Weekend Edition) (February 12, 2020)
Chronogram Magazine -- “Ella The Ungovernable” at The Valatie Community Theatre (Feb. 2020)
VIDEO TRAILERS DIRECTED BY DAVID MCDONALD FOR “ELLA THE UNGOVERNABLE”
This is the first trailer playwright David McDonald prepared when he was originally planning the project as a film to be shot in Hudson, NY.
This second trailer was prepared by McDonald when the focus of the project switched over to theater.
This third video was put together by McDonald in September of 2019 and is really the definitive overview of the goals and accomplishments of the play at that point. The trailer is called "Ella The Ungovernable, A Play For Our Times." Voiceover is by Philip Grant:
BIO OF PLAYWRIGHT DAVID MCDONALD
David McDonald is a long-time journalist who launched a career as a filmmaker with the feature-length documentary “Woodstock Revisited” in 2006. In the years since, he has done extensive journalism style videos for clients like The NY Times, Time Magazine and CNN.
In 2017, McDonald won The New York Foundation of The Arts Individual Artist’s Award for Columbia and Greene County for a documentary project based on Harry Belafonte’s 1959 movie “Odds Against Tomorrow,” which was filmed in Hudson. The trailer for that project is here:
David McDonald is also the author of "Chagall In Flight," the story of artist Marc Chagall's exile as a refugee from Nazi Germany in Upstate, NY, in the 1940s. Here is the trailer to that project:
He has also been spending the past ten years working on a series of short films called "The Mystery Of Creativity," which explore the origins of creativity and the connections between creativity and spirituality. Here is one of the clips from that project, on the concept of the collective unconscious:
- Jay Aronson
- Ute Stebich
- Phyllis Schlesinger
- Ilze Earner
- David Flemming