Saturday, August 22, 2020


I was unprepared for Jennifer Hudson. The third night of the Democratic National Convention with its nearly two hours of heart-felt speeches and beautifully edited video montages about gun control, climate change, racism, and immigration policies had left my emotional pump primed, but it was the sight of Ms. Hudson, elegant and composed in an apricot-colored gown, that cranked open the faucet. A performer and her accompanists away from the stage seemed to embody everything that is new and strange about our world.

The vast lobby of the Harold Washington Cultural Center, like the convention itself, was missing the collective heartbeat, the mingling of exclamations and exhortations. The gold trimmed arches, ornate painted ceilings and Tiffany glass dome only emphasized the emptiness of the space, and reminded me how much I love a pre-show theatre crowd. What I wouldn’t give for the mingling of perfumes, the jostling of elbows and shoulders, and the pleasure of eavesdropping in line at the bar. On an ordinary evening, the glamorous lobby would shrink around a mix of theatergoers; the glowing dome would hold the community as they prepared to be transported by art. On an ordinary evening, Hudson would likely spend the time before the show in her dressing room before emerging into the spotlight. The transactional agreement between performer and audience would be clear.

Instead, we saw her from a distance, dwarfed by her surroundings, a tiny figure in a sea of carpet. Though the chandeliers glowed above her, it was possible to see hallways trailing into darkness on both sides of her. The camera circled, orbiting closer and closer, observing her first quiet notes supported by Fred Nelson and Richard Gibbs on twin pianos, and echoed by Reginald Foster’s soprano sax. We bore witness as she used her voice and her body to take control of her surroundings. Perhaps due to a youth spent reading Ray Bradbury; an adulthood inundated by post-apocalyptic cinema, I had the passing thought that these few humans in this vast space might have been the last alive on the planet.

Sam Cooke’s, “A Change is Gonna Come,” is a kind of prayer and every moment of the previous two hours had made it clear that even if you weren’t a church person, now is the time for prayers. The song is also a story. Using Aretha Franklin’s arrangement, Hudson tacked on four lines at the beginning, which shift the telling into a re-telling. Hudson picked up the thread of history and acknowledged her own place in the narrative.

At the close, Hudson stretched out those last few bars. “It’s been a long time coming,” she sang, looking up, looking out, seeking, seeking answers. She shouted to the sky. Not the ranting of Lear, but the clear and controlled demands of a woman who knows what she has been missing. The power of this plea drove her body forward. She seemed unable to resist the pull to action.  

Turning from the camera, offering her back to us in a position of both vulnerability and strength, Jennifer Hudson was audience and performer. She was play and playwright as she strode through the room, and down the wide staircase. I imagined the marvelous echo of that stairwell, the thrill it might have given her to feel the power of a voice that no longer needed a microphone to be heard.

 Watch her magnificent performance here