A legend in her own right

A legend in her own right

Box office dynamo Leslie Uggams returns to Pasadena in ‘Uptown Downtown’

By Jana J. Monji 11/18/2010

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Leslie Uggams, the Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress who broke box office records during her 2009 portrayal of actress and singer Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather,” returns to the Pasadena Playhouse Friday in the musical story of her own career called “Uptown Downtown.” 
 
Horne, who Uggams describes as “a great trailblazer,” actually touched Uggams’ life in other ways; not only did she play Horne on stage, but she won a Tony for “Hallelujah Baby!” — in the lead role that had been meant for Horne. 
 
In a recent phone interview, Uggams described how she performed at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, opening for legends like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, then went on to blaze a few trails of her own. 
 
Uggams was once considered for the lead role of the 1963 film “Cleopatra,” which eventually went to Elizabeth Taylor. Another black actress, Dorothy Dandridge, was also in the running, and both women were considered controversial choices because of their race.
 
Uggams later played Kizzy, the daughter of an African warrior enslaved in 1750s America, in the much-acclaimed  1977 TV miniseries “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” 
 
“It was a groundbreaking story about Americans … Instead of showing black people as uneducated slaves, it showed how we came from royalty and were kidnapped or abducted yet still managed to survive. That kind of history didn’t get into school books and still doesn’t get into school books,” Uggams said.
 
“Roots” won a Golden Globe, a Peabody Award and nine Emmys. Uggams was nominated for an Emmy but didn’t win that year. In 1983, she won a Daytime Emmy as host of the “The Leslie Uggams Show.” Although it lasted only one season, Uggams became the second African-American host since the 1965 “Nat King Cole Show,” but the first African-American woman to host a TV show.
In a sign of how much times have changed, in 2005 she played opposite James Earl Jones in the Broadway revival of “On Golden Pond,” a play that wasn’t originally written for African Americans. In 2001, she also starred in August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” receiving another Tony nomination.
 
Uggams promises there will be glimpses of famous people, such as Ella Fitzgerald, and events, like her TV appearances and Broadway shows. But, of course, she won’t reveal everything. After all, what would the show be without a few surprises?

“Uptown Downtown” opens Friday and continues through Dec. 12 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $39 to $69. Call (626) 921-1161 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.

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