Metamorphosis Part II

20 Sep

As a young teen Peggy Ann Freeman was “crazy” about Johnny Mathis. “She was in love with him,” says her sister Lillian. “He was so handsome—a good-looking black person.” She also liked Motown and loved the movie West Side Story.

But this was the Beatnik era, and Peggy Ann, as she stepped into the role of Donyale Luna, acquired more subterranean tastes. Jazz. Folk music, especially Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Poetry. And of course theatre. She hung out with beau/friend Sanders Bryant at a coffeehouse called the Chessmate. They took in stage productions of Porgy and Bess.

Some pop stars made the cut through her evolving preferences: Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr., the entire Rat Pack. She enjoyed Dr. Zhivago and the original cast production of The Music Man.

And Elizabeth Taylor—although when I took her to see Ms. Taylor’s Cleopatra, what enthralled her most was the character of Cleopatra.

Young Donyale star-struck

The newly-minted Donyale Luna was star-struck. She dreamed of being a movie star herself. “Continuously. That’s all you would see, hear or smell from Donyale,” says sister Lillian.  “‘Oh, I’ve got to go to practice. I’ve got to go to rehearsal. I’ve got to go to this place over here; we’re having practice. We’re having cast party.’ She was totally into it.”

“She was always busy, involved,” Sanders Bryant concurs. “She wasn’t at home in front of the TV set; she stayed out a lot.” She didn’t hang out with friends often because “she was involved in plays after school, singing, other activities.”

Donyale’s constant whirl was painful to Lillian. “I wanted to go too,” she says, “ but she never invited me and I didn’t want to just bust in and be rude. I was so jealous I didn’t know what to do. She was always going somewhere and I couldn’t go anywhere.”

Donyale was nothing if not sensitive, and she must have felt Lillian’s unhappiness. Some big sisters might try to include her. Others, especially anyone on as fast a track as Donyale Luna, spinning by her younger sister as she danced into her dreams, might not.

As Chastity in Anything Goes

Donyale opposite Bob Moldowan in Detroit Civic Theatre production of Anything Goes. Donyale played Chastity

At age 16 and 17, Donyale was performing onstage at the Civic Center Theatre in Detroit, appearing as Cherry in Paint Your Wagon, Ariel in The Tempest, Chastity in Anything Goes and Terry (the lead) in Stage Door.

Donyale’s first flirtation with fame may have come not under the limelight, however, but in another arena. She loved singing and joined the Commerce High chorus, another small chorus at school and a large choir in Glee Club as well. And she was talented enough to be accepted into the Honors Choir.

At that time Diana Ross was attending high school at Cass Tech, next door to Commerce. Sanders Bryant was driving Donyale somewhere when the Supremes’ first song came on the radio. “Imagine when she told me she was singing backup when that was recorded! It almost caused me to have an accident!” He recalled dropping her off at the Motown door some months before. “That door led directly down to Studio A.,” he says. “There was no lobby, nowhere else to go.”

Sang with Supremes?

Lillian is skeptical that it happened. “That was something big; she would have told me about that.”

The Supremes

Did Donyale sing with the Supremes? Diana Ross graduated from Cass Tech 1½ years before Donyale did from sister school Commerce High. Ms. Ross co-produced and starred in the movie Mahogany, about a black supermodel, which some say is based on the life of Donyale Luna. Maybe Donyale was the starting point, but there are few similarities.

It’s hard to know. Donyale was a master at deception, but her lies were usually more creative than simply claiming she did something that she didn’t.

Bryant, who took journalism classes with her in high school, believes that even more than her well-chronicled ambition to be a great actress (“like Anna Magnani”), she aspired to writing screenplays and stage plays. “She had already written some screenplays,” Bryant says. “Andy Warhol shot Snow White, which she wrote back in high school. She was planning to go to the University of Hawaii—she still lived and talked this Hawaiian persona with me—to pursue a writing career. She always thought in international terms.”

When I was seeing Donyale, whenever I mentioned my writing to her she would tell me she had written eight books. Or four books, or several books: the number kept changing.

“What kind of books?” I asked once.

“Stories. Books of stories.”

I asked her if I could see them, but none were forthcoming. She told me so many other things that weren’t true that I didn’t believe her. One of my many shocks in researching Donyale Luna 45 years later was learning that yes, she had written books in high school. She may have been afraid to show them to me because I wrote theatre reviews. I was young and my critiques were not always kind.

“A natural born dancer”

Teenage Donyale had yet another artistic love: dance. Early on she combined that with her thespian ambitions: three of her four roles with the Civic Center Theatre were primarily dance roles. “She was a natural born dancer,” says Roland Sharette, the theatre’s Managing Director.

What possessed Peggy Ann Freeman to rip up her entire personality and even her inner workings and launch such a sweeping change in who she was? Physically there was the obvious—to enhance her chances of realizing her dreams of writing, acting and dancing.  Underneath that lurked two deeper motivations.

First, she lived inside a female form that daily grew increasingly unlike any other that she, or anyone else, had ever seen. Maybe she was from the moon! She had a choice of slouching over and trying to look invisible or of stepping into it, creating a being that could contain the vehicle and its strange, unearthly beauty.

Yes, she was star-struck, yes she was driven to become famous. But that was only the surface manifestation of an inner knowledge, of which she was most likely only hazily conscious, that she was destined to live a mythic life.

This may have been part of what led her to Catholicism: she was looking for strength to meet her destiny. Her joining the church was the formal beginning of a path of spiritual seeking that would wind through psychedelics, the eclectic smorgasbord of Eastern mysticism that swept through the hippie culture, stones and crystals, and something of her own creation, “Future Visioning,” a pre-New Age version of creating your identity by imagining it.

Did she succeed? Who ruled whom? Which won?

Second, part of becoming Donyale Luna was choosing to always be happy. “She wiped out all the negative and accepted only the positive,” says Lillian. “That was Donyale Luna. Her world, her way.”

This suggests that, for whatever reasons, young Peggy Ann Freeman spent a lot of her time feeling unhappy. Unhappy over what? Two big issues come to mind. We’ll look at one of them next time in “Four Weddings and a Funeral: Donyale’s Parents.”

Did this post hit a chord? Send a comment.

Sources:

Sanders Bryant III, conversations, Sept.-Oct. 2008
Yvonne Petrie, “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” Detroit News, April 1966
Richard J. Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture, U. of    Chicago Press, 2008
Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2009

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