REVIEW: ‘Blackbird’ is a surprisingly inspiring recount of 1920s singer Florence Mills

Jonelle Allen, pictured above, stars as "Blackbird's" Florence Mills and reflects on the life and times of her influence. (photo courtesy of Nina Welch)

Jonelle Allen, pictured above, stars as “Blackbird’s” Florence Mills and reflects on the life and times of her influence. (photo courtesy of Nina Welch)

The premise of “Blackbird” is completely contrary to what one might expect. A woman, set during the Vietnam War era, recounts her inspirational tale of a former 1920s singer.

I entered, through no fault of my own ignorance, thinking this was going to be a story of a Vietnam spy or a tail of the SR-71 Blackbird fighter jet. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that neither came to fruition.

In a small, dark and nondescript theatre room, known as the Studio Theatre, located in the Fine Arts sector of Saddleback College, “Blackbird: The Florence Mills Story” has to be the one play that I will keep fondly remembered for years to come.

A projector welcomed the audience, fondly setting the stage and telling the tale of 1920s music intertwined with the rising interest of African American music, known as the Harlem Renaissance. Artists such as Count Basie, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington provided a warm welcome with their unforgettable music, but the play’s centerpiece had yet to arrive.

Florence Mills was the name to remember, a woman whose name was formally known as the “Queen of Happiness,” for the people she inspired throughout her active years in the early 20th century. Played by Jonelle Allen, her determination in acting out Florence’s youthful energy showed. Musical numbers such as “I’m A Little Blackbird, Looking For A Bluebird” was a personal favorite, done solely by Jonelle and her pianist—this was nothing short of an awe-inspiring performance.

Despite “Blackbird’s” regrettably short period at Saddleback for its viewers, its presence is not gone. Acting as a “world premiere” at Saddleback College, both “Blackbird” and Jonelle Allen as well as her wonderful team including director Stevi Meredith and composer David Jayden Anthony will move on to their next venue later this year. It will continue to inspire both young and old that no matter the time, one can completely reinvent their life if one has the determination.

Jonelle, an award-winning actress, known extensively for her previous works among film works such as “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” The Hotel New Hampshire” and “The River Niger.” Television appearances notably include “Barney Miller,” “The Love Boat,” “All in the Family,” “Trapper John, M.D.,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Cagney and Lacey,” E.R.” and “Girlfriends.” Previous roles at Saddleback College such as “A Christmas Carol” and “The Journey” were met with similar acclaim, but her most recent appearance in “Blackbird” is one to put not only Jonelle, but also Saddleback’s Fine Arts Department back onto the map.

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