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In Cab Calloway's family, one intrepid woman inspires another

Daughter portrays bandleader aunt

NEWTON HIGHLANDS -- When Chris Calloway was growing up, as the daughter of the legendary jazz bandleader Cab Calloway, she knew her aunt Blanche as a radiant, larger-than-life figure who had a circular bed and a shawl-covered piano decorated with photos of herself with a band.

About 15 years ago, Calloway discovered that there was a lot more to her aunt. The band in the photo was her band. In the '30s, she was the first female leader of an all-male touring band. It was Blanche who got her little brother Cab started in show business. And her post-band life was pretty spectacular as well.

This forgotten dynamo just hollered out for musical treatment. So Chris Calloway, a singer and actress herself, wrote one. And now she stars in the one-woman show (with a jazz combo).

New Repertory Theatre's "Blanche and Her Joy Boys," a coproduction with Barrington Stage Company, begins previews Wednesday.

"One of the things I never knew was Aunt Blanche was this fabulous thing, a trailblazer," says Calloway. "She walked around in her own spotlight."

In a way, Chris Calloway does, too. Sitting in a function room at New Rep, she's a slim 54 with tawny skin and a cloud of curly red hair, glamorous in a black pantsuit and a leopard-print shawl. She's candid, dramatic, and comfortable in her own skin.

The story of how she created the show is like an aerial Imax camera. It zooms through the lives of three African-American musical artists and the eras they sang in, crosses continents, dips into illness and tragedy, and then emerges into the bright light of revelation.

Chris Calloway grew up in White Plains, N.Y., with her father, the bandleader and vocalist famous for his white zoot suits, Hi-De-Ho Orchestra, and manic onstage energy. Chris says she had music in her DNA; she used to direct herself and her two younger sisters in extravaganzas for their father's Christmas Day birthday party.

But at first, she didn't have his professionalism. She studied drama with the late theater critic Elliot Norton at Boston University in the late '60s but dropped out of school when she found that late nights working on stage productions clashed with 8 a.m. Western Civ. classes.

"My father was so disappointed that I didn't finish college he threw a TV at me," she says. But after seeing her perform as a singing hatcheck girl at New York's Improvisation, he got her a job in the Catskills.

Lessons in maturity After singing at clubs along the East Coast, Calloway got hired for the all-black production of "Hello, Dolly," starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway. But during the show she fell in love with a jazz musician and walked off.

"My dad, who was not one of the most overtly affectionate of men," she says, "stuck his neck out for me. He wouldn't sign his own contract unless they put me back in the show." They did, and she straightened up.

After "Hello, Dolly," she got married and had a son, Rupert Osaze. But when her husband died, she started working in Los Angeles as one of the first black female DJs. She went on the road with "Eubie!," a show about ragtime pioneer Eubie Blake.

Then she spent the next 20 years touring the world with her father. But working together wasn't always easy. "Daddy was a taskmaster," she says. "He'd always say, `Never turn your back on the audience. You owe everything to them.' "

In the mid-'80s, while on tour in London, she was prodded by a cousin living there to find out more about Blanche. In a Tower Records, she found a CD featuring her aunt. "When I heard that voice for the first time," Chris Calloway says, "I was delirious."

In doing research, she discovered that Blanche Calloway headed the Joy Boys until 1939. She married several times, became a Philadelphia socialite, and managed the career of R&B singer Ruth Brown. Then she moved to Miami, where she had her own radio show, wrote a column for a newspaper, and sold real estate. She also set up the first African-American mail-order company, cosmetics maker Afram House Inc.

In between tours, when not learning about her aunt, Chris was also performing the one-woman show about Billie Holiday, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," in regional theaters. In the early '90s, she did the show at the New Mexico Repertory Theatre and fell in love with Santa Fe.

But when the theater folded in 1994, she ended up selling jewelry and clothing and playing in bars for $50 a night. Her fortunes improved when the La Posada Resort hired her to sing in the lounge.

"I became Santa Fe's reigning diva of the night," she says. "I stepped into my power. I honored my choices. I made peace with my father."

Out there, she started working on the first version of the Blanche show, then called "Clouds of Joy." Calloway remembered Julianne Boyd, who had directed her in "Eubie!" and approached her about doing the show at the Barrington Stage Company, where Boyd had become artistic director. "When I was working with Chris on `Eubie!,' " says Boyd, "I thought she had unbelievable talent and her energy was wonderful. I thought, if the show's good, we'd have so much fun."

The two worked on shaping the script, and Boyd eventually called in New York playwright Mark St. Germain ("Ears on a Beatle") to write a new version.

The show covers Blanche's years with the Joy Boys, her husbands, and her spirituality, and is studded with songs she made famous, like "I'm Just Wild About Harry," "I Need Lovin'," and her signature song, "Growlin' Dan."

Blanche died in 1978, at 75, of breast cancer, a disease that Chris says she held off "for 12 years through juice and Christian Science." And Calloway says there's a spooky coincidence in doing the Blanche show. During the rehearsals at Barrington last year, she experienced a recurrence of her own breast cancer. Calloway would go to Pittsfield for radiation treatments and then rehearse all day, impressing Boyd with her steely resolve. (Her cancer is now in remission.)

If that weren't enough, Calloway's son died suddenly in Los Angeles from a heart condition brought on by prior drug use.

"This year has turned out to be a bit of a blur," she says, shaking her head. She performed "Lady Day" in Pennsylvania (for which she was nominated for a Barrymore Award) and Alabama. Then she came home and "crashed bad." But after regrouping, she launched into a new production of "Blanche," which ran at Barrington Stage in October.

She attributes her new direction to "divine feminine energy, and the God-is-love stuff that we know is real. The mission of an artist in the 21st century is to heal. I'm grateful to be the channel. That's what Aunt Blanche was, that's what Daddy was. The Calloway entertainment tradition is about bringing joy to people."

Catherine Foster can be reached at foster@globe.com

"Blanche and Her Joy Boys'' opens Nov. 14 and runs through Dec. 14 at the New Repertory Theatre, Newton Highlands. www.newrep.org, 617-332-1646.

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