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Singer Laka brings more than one ‘St. Louis Woman’ to life in new show

St. Louis vocalist Laka will embody several giants of the St. Louis arts world in "St. Louis Woman."
Todd Davis
The Midnight Company
St. Louis vocalist Laka will embody several giants of the St. Louis arts world in "St. Louis Woman."

St. Louis vocalist Laka excels in the intimate cabaret format, but she’s never stood onstage and played a character before. Now she’ll play a few every night.

All are Black women who spent at least some of their lives in St. Louis or East St. Louis and achieved great success in the fields of music, dance and literature.

Joined only by an onstage band, Laka stars in the Midnight Company’s world premiere of “St. Louis Woman” at the .Zack Theatre through Oct. 22. Performances begin Thursday.

Laka portrays Willie Mae Ford Smith, Josephine Baker, and Tina Turner, and also discusses and performs signature works by Katherine Dunham, Maya Angelou, Fontella Bass and Ann Peebles.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Laka and playwright/director Joe Hanrahan about the inspiration they took from the powerful protagonists of “St. Louis Women.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin: What did you learn from the women of “St. Louis Woman”?

Laka: I think mostly that it's just hard work. You know, sometimes I think, ‘Man, I work really hard.’ That's what you have to do. That's what it takes. You have to work really hard if you want to make it. If you want to get out there. If you want to people to hear your music, that's what it takes. And I think I identify with them in that way. It's like, OK, so this is the roadmap.

Goodwin: You're used to that hard work, right? You're an accomplished dietitian by day. And you wow them at the music venues at night.

Laka: Yeah.

Goodwin: You’ve cited Tina Turner as an influence before this process started, and I had the chance to watch a video of you performing a stripped-down version of “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” at the Blue Strawberry, which was very nice. Would she be the one in this roster of people that you had the most familiarity with?

Laka: Oh, absolutely. She’s from the country, I'm from Cape Girardeau. She’s from small-town Tennessee, just this country girl coming to St. Louis, and I feel like I identify with her that way. A little rough around the edges, but I clean up all right.

Goodwin: Is the song “St. Louis Blues” in the show?

Laka: Oh yes, it’s the theme song of the show.

Joe Hanrahan: We start off with a couple of songs that weren’t by St. Louis women, but about them — ”St. Louis Blues” and “Frankie and Johnny,” which put St. Louis on the map.

Goodwin: Laka, you haven’t released it yet, but you’ve recorded "St. Louis Blues,” right?

Laka: Yes, and I do it in a bluesy style, and that’s probably my real voice, I guess.

Goodwin: What connects all the women in this story?

Hanrahan: They all created amazing art that transcended their neighborhood, their city, their country — that impacted the world. And they all shared, as Laka’s referenced many times, a courage and a dedication to continuing the work, to continuing to grow as artists and as people. The one thing you see in all these women is how socially conscious some of them are. From Josephine Baker to Maya Angelou, it’s like their lives went from entertainment to being really part of the struggles and the movements that were happening at the time.

Laka: And Katherine Dunham, the work she did in East St. Louis developing her performing arts training center. She was a very accomplished dancer and she could have chosen to live anywhere, but it was her mission to help people, and she found that there was a place where she could be of service and help and really impact the community.

Goodwin: Laka, I know you perform under your own name and you also sing with the group Vote for Pedro. What do you think you might take from this experience and bring it back to that part of your artistry?

Laka: More dancing. And for my own shows, maybe more costume changes. I think the audience would enjoy that.

 Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.