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'Souvenir' to be performed at Black Box this month


November 06, 2017

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“What matters most is the music you hear in your head.”

Wealthy New York philanthropist Florence Foster Jenkins spoke these words, summing up not just her life but the musical career she worked so hard to build.

Jenkins took piano until the age of 15, when she married 30-year-old Dr. Frank Jenkins, who reportedly gave her syphilis, which was at that time incurable. The pair separated after three years of marriage, and she later moved to New York.

Jenkins was known for programming musical recitals, all while she dreamed of being an opera singer. She began to give performances for some of the groups she supported, whose members enthusiastically attended the concerts, despite her awful singing.

She died of a heart attack at the age of 76, and reportedly said, in her last days, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

Jenkins lived quite the extraordinary life – and her story was written as a play, entitled Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. The play will be brought to the stage in the Whitaker Black Box Theater later this month. Susan Jackson will portray Jenkins, while Robert Cottle will play Cosme McMoon, Jenkins’ friend and accompanist. The play will be directed by Jennifer Nunn.

Jackson has played hundreds of roles since first becoming interested in the theater in high school. She has played small characters with no lines, and she has played the lead. She has sung opera, and was a soloist with the Savannah Symphony Chorus. She says she hasn’t sung much in the past few years, and is very much looking forward to this role.

This production began with the viewing of a YouTube clip.

“I saw a clip of it on YouTube and it piqued my interest. I just thought, I’d love to do that. So I began researching it and talked to Robert about it. He ordered the script and it went from there,” she said.

Jackson has done a two-person show before – night, Mother.

“I seem to be leaning toward these two-people shows,” she said, laughing. She added that this show is unique because in addition to all the dialogue, there is also singing.

When asked about singing “terribly” as Jenkins, Jackson just laughs, and says she’s looking forward to it.

“I thought I could just sing anything. But what I have found myself doing is learning the songs as they are written, and then just altering them, just messing up the words or the rhythm. Florence Foster had no sense of pitch or rhythm, even her pronunciation of the foreign songs, she just slaughtered them,” she said.

She says she alters the pitch and the words, but “in my mind I have to have some sense of what the song is.”

Jackson will sing in several languages, including German, Spanish, French, Italian and Latin. She will end the show singing “Ave Maria,” in Latin.

She’s looking forward to getting lost in the character.

“She was just fascinating. She was not an arrogant socialite. She was so sincere about it. She had so many charities that she actually gave money to, and she loved music. Music was her life. And apparently, she had no idea she couldn’t sing,” Jackson said.  “She was just a dear person.”

Cottle will be playing the piano and singing, in addition to the huge amount of dialogue he will deliver.

“The whole premise of the show is a series of flashbacks for Cosme. It starts with him in a bar, and he starts telling how everyone wanted to laugh at her and say bad things about her and her singing, but no one really knew her as a person. So he gives a little history, about how their relationship developed over time,” he said.

The first act, Cottle said, is mostly him talking with her singing short pieces every now and then. The second act is a lot of dialogue for him, with excerpts of their 20 years of concerts.

Of the terrible singing that Jackson will do in her role as Jenkins, Cottle says it sometimes surprises him.

“Sometimes it catches me off-guard because she’ll do something completely ridiculous. But she’s a lot of fun to work with and she’s been very helpful to me,” he said.

Of his character, Cottle said there’s not a lot of background given about McMoon.

“It’s all based on his relationship with her,” he said. “He originally went in for the wrong reasons, and then became very protective of her. He went in just wanting to make money off of her, and then he realized she’s actually a very good person, and that she really cares about music. She’s just not capable of making it.”

Cottle, like Jackson, referenced the quote from Jenkins about the music you hear in your head, and says that perception is key.

“How you perceive things, that’s your reality. Anyone can really enjoy music,” he said.

Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence FosterJenkins will be performed Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 and 2, at 7:30 p.m. each night at the Whitaker Black Box Theater. Tickets are $16, and can be purchased at www.averittcenterforthearts.org or by calling (912) 212-2787.


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