The 1970s in the United States were flanked by a highly protested war, political scandals, surging inflation and unemployment that gave way to a spike in crime. That, paired with persisting hatred toward Black, Latino and queer communities, left many searching for spaces where they could be free. In walks disco — an explosive musical genre with origins in those communities — and its indisputable queen was Donna Summer.
Lawrenceville Art Center’s Aurora Theatre will share this queen’s journey through disco and beyond in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. The show will run through April 9.
Summer explores the rise, reign and reflections of Donna Summer throughout the stages of her life: Duckling Donna, played by Jessenia Ingram; Disco Donna, played by Desiré Gaston; and Diva Donna, played by Marliss Ameia.
“What I love most so far about playing Donna Summer is being able to dive into her foundation and discover how she grew into becoming the queen we came to know,” Ingram said.
A native of Plano, Texas, and 2019 graduate of Spelman College’s theater and performance program, Ingram has long been a fan of Summer’s music. For each of the actresses, though, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical was an introduction to the woman behind the sound.
“She put her heart, soul, and the multitudes of herself into her music, and that’s what we continue to feel to this day,” Ingram said.
Born in Boston as LaDonna Adrian Gaines on New Year’s Eve 1948, Donna Summer was a self-proclaimed church girl who sang in the choir and found inspiration in the haunting voice of gospel great Mahalia Jackson. It was at church that this little girl showed the congregation her big voice and realized her destiny.
“She said that God told her at a young age she would be famous,” Ingram said. “She had a dream in her heart, and she went after it.”
Years before her disco fame, Summer made a life in Germany with her role in the musical Hair. There, she also recorded at the renowned Musicland Studios in Munich, performed in other theater productions, met her first husband Helmuth Sommer — from whom her last stage name was derived — and became a mother.
In 1975, her simple idea, “Love to Love You Baby,” became her breakout hit, launching her career stateside through Casablanca Records.
In the years following, Summer dazzled stages in sequined, sheer and sexy outfits, gyrating dance moves and crisp yet sultry vocals that opened the door for singers to be erotic and edgy in their lyrics and delivery. Her pen spawned more chart toppers across the late 1970s, including “Last Dance,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” with Barbra Streisand and a cover of the ballad, “MacArthur Park.”
Mired by controversy — her sensual moaning on “Love to Love You Baby” shocked some listeners and caused some radio stations to ban the song — Summer worried that her talent would be overshadowed by her sex appeal.
“There’s a tunnel vision idea of who she was,” said Ameia, a D.C. native whose stage and screen career spans 30 years. “She was seen as a sex symbol, but she was very spiritual. God was very important in her life.”
While Summer peaked during the disco era, she continued to make R&B, dance and pop hits well into the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, such as “She Works Hard for the Money.”
Alongside her risqué tunes, revealing fashion and understanding of the business, “She Works Hard for the Money,” was another reflection of her legacy as a proponent of women’s liberation. It demanded respect for women, as the video depicted the stress of women. At the time, of course, women were growing in the labor force, newly moving up to executive positions and gaining financial independence from men — while balancing work with motherhood or other life obligations, often with little thanks, glamour or help. The video also gave more exposure to women’s work experiences such as sexual harassment.
The three Donnas said the musical has taught them more about what Summer meant to women in entertainment and women everywhere.
“She pioneered a voice for women in the music industry by writing her own songs and taking charge of her career on the business side as well as the creative side,” said Gaston, a native of Indianapolis. “I believe she set the tone for women in the industry to be present and firm.”
Summer is a jukebox musical but also a history lesson, Ameia said. Based on a book by rising heartthrob Colman Domingo, Robert Cray and Des McAnuff, the musical debuted in 2017 at the La Jolla PlayHouse in San Diego before landing on Broadway.
The current production is directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris, who choreographed the Tony Award-winning Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun, as well as the film. He has also directed at various theaters, including True Colors here in Atlanta and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York.
“This cast and creative team are so dope! The ensemble adds so much to the world that we’re creating together,” Ingram said. “All of this is possible because of our fearless leader, Patdro. He is so dynamic and tapped into his creativity and allows us to do the same.”
The three Donnas said they’re each growing as artists from being able to bounce off of each other. Their appreciation for Summer’s music makes the experience even more special.
“Her music makes you want to love, move freely and enjoy life’s highs and lows,” Ingram said. “Expect to jam out to Donna’s hit music and also be treated to the story behind the star.”
Angela Oliver is a proud native of old Atlanta who grew up in the West End. A WKU journalism and Black studies grad, daily news survivor and member of Delta Sigma Theta, she works in the grassroots nonprofit world while daydreaming about seeing her scripts come alive on the big screen.