Death by Dancing
A stage play inspired by a real-life tragedy and told by Danese Frazier- Turner
The date was April 23, 1940. It was spring—the rebirth period where flowers bloomed and grass seemed to be the sweetest smelling things. The warm season arrived during the time that the Rhythm Night Club was to have one of the largest and most anticipated happenings of the year. The townsfolk of Natchez, Mississippi had talked about the celebration elatedly and now the moment was finally here. Imagine how long it took to save up their earnings just to purchase tickets for the dance and not to mention suitable attire so that they could dance the night away and still look pleasing on the eyes. Oh, the chatters about the bash spread through other towns and cities, and they too, would be arriving in Natchez for the revelry.
The tickets were fifty cents in advance and sixty-five cents at the door-- 557 tickets sold for that momentous festivity… Although numerous people came to the event, only a few would survive.
Ed Frazier, the night club owner, was known for having the best dance parties with live music. He prepared for the evening with Tiny Bradshaw and his orchestra for the opening act. However, Bradshaw took a late booking at the Apollo Theater. Walter Barnes and his prestigious Royal Creolians orchestra was booked last minute to perform.
Ed Frazier had the windows boarded so that those on the outside who had not bought tickets could not see the performances on the inside of the club. Spanish moss had been draped across the inside beams, around the doorways for embellishment. During those times, the organic moss was more plush, and green—it was an elegant decoration. As a precaution, the moss was sprayed with a petroleum based Filt insecticide to keep the bugs from circulating the trimming. The conditions were so dry that a flammable methane gas was produced—a fire started and destroyed the building within an hour, although it’s been rumored that it took less than thirty minutes to burn through.
As a valiant effort, Walter Barnes tried to calm the people by having his orchestra play the last song that would be heard coming from the firestorm building. The structure began to engulf with a wicked black smoke and dancing flames. The people were frantic, and racing for an unrestricted exit. Only a few made it out through the ticket booth entrance as well as the front door. Many made great efforts to escape. However, the backdoor was padlocked shut, and the windows were boarded up. Approximately, 209 blacks were killed in that fire, and hundreds of others were hurt during the tussle to get out on that beautiful spring night. The Rhythm Club fire would be one of the most horrific accounts shared. It was the fourth deadliest fire in US History.
Writer, Producer, and Artistic Director, Danese Frazier-Turner, granddaughter of the late Ed Frazier and Odell Brown (his wife whom was also trapped in the fire), plans to present Death By Dancing, a spell-binding stage play. Death by Dancing is a piercing edutainment of that ghastly evening her grandfather, grandmother, and hundreds of other blacks lost their lives, in the Rhythm Night Club Fire. The stage play will be held on November 28, 2015 at the Riverside EpiCenter -135 Riverside Parkway- Austell, Georgia.
With 27-years in marketing and communication, writing and instructional design experience, she confirms that her divine assignment is to teach and resourcefully share the purpose and power of worship with others. She founded “REJOICE,” a children’s dance ministry in 2001, leads the Spirit and Truth Dance ministry, established the “Glorious” pageant ministries in 2008, and is an active member of Turner AME Church in Marietta, Georgia. She also founded The Purpose & Power Connection, and in 2010, she wrote, produced, and premiered the highly acclaimed stage play, “Blood Relatives” which exhibited at The Rialto Center for Arts in downtown Atlanta. Danese collaborated, wrote, and produced a production for the North Atlanta District Church School Convention in 2014 which highlighted the prevalence and need of adoptive and foster care in Georgia and currently teaches arts workshops, presents at conferences, and facilitates local “Power Sessions”, that are designated to inspire as well as arm ministries and movement artist to go “higher” in Ministry.
As I said, Danese’s drive and dedication is impressive. She allows God to cultivate her celestial life purpose. Turner looks for no capital gain or recognition. She dances gracefully in that purpose while painting pictures of history, pain, and happiness. I know her grandparents would be proud of her efforts…
Tel l me about your cultural movement and the reason that you started all this. Well, I have been doing stage productions since 2003 for my church, Turner Chapel AME in Marietta, Georgia. I just saw the need to put not just a visual behind certain messages, but also the movement. The dance is Universal. Sometimes people don’t get it through the song or the words, they often get it through the movement, and I have seen, over the years, how effective that’s been. So, I just started doing more and more, and branched out and now, I’m doing it independently. It’s the perfect medium for me. I love writing. I love writing through multi-media and I love the movement piece. It just became the perfect marriage.
How did growing up and knowing about the Rhythm Night Club fire have an effect on you? My great grandmother was the bearer of the story. She told me about it as did my dad. For a long time, my dad wouldn’t talk about it as much. But, it became one of those defining events by one uses to identify a time period. Just like people refer to other tragedies - “Was it before Katrina or after Katrina? Was it before nine eleven or after nine eleven?” My dad and others would think of things in those terms. He was only five-years- old at the time of the fire and he had lost both his father and mother. When he would tell us about historical things, he would always say, “That was before the fire or after the fire.” So, after talking with my great grandmother, they relayed the story to my brother and I, and we grew up knowing that my grandfather, Ed Frazier, owned the Rhythm Night Club. Within the last three-years, we were told my grandfather did not own the building. Just like many other things, your name may not be on a deed or the building, on a piece of paper. That was up for debate. There are several other things that I had been told that there seems to be an ongoing debate about. But, I knew all my life that Ed Frazier was owner of the Rhythm Night club. He also owned his own restaurant that was cater-cornered across the street from the club. I’m telling it from the perspective from which I was told. Like I said, some people might dispute his owning the building, which might be true. But, that’s how I grew to know the story growing up.
Do you think times have changed from then and now? They were so secretive. I think times have changed in a couple of different ways. That building is no longer there but the spot is there. Betty and Monroe Sacco run the Rhythm and Night Club Museum. They really didn’t know about the spot or lot until someone told them about it after they brought the Boppers a few years ago. They don’t have the same history, but they have developed a love of the history of the club. What I grew learning is what I used when I began writing a book about it in 1996. Every year they do a commemorative in honor of the victims and survivors and in 1996, they asked if I would come down and speak about it ‘cause I write poetry. So, I wrote a poem called, “Death by Dancing” and recited that poem at the commemorative service. I came back to Atlanta and continued to do my research for the book. I talked to a couple of survivors at the time and even had started putting together a good bit of the manuscript and low and behold, during that time, I wasn’t feeling well. I was getting tired a lot and it was then that I learned I was expecting. And guess what? I never returned to the book. But, as I started doing the stage plays, I thought, “Wow. This could make a very awesome stage play.” I tossed the idea around but never had time to work it in. But, this time felt right. As it is the 75th Anniversary, I felt the Lord just released me to do it. The doors opened up for me to do it and everything just seemed to fall into place.
What can we expect from the event? The event in November, is an historical fiction inspired by the event. Many of the characters are a melting pot of characters that I have both read and heard about. Many of the things are factual, including the fact that the original band. The Tiny Bradshaw Orchestra, had accepted another gig in New York that was by far bigger and so he couldn’t do it. Another large orchestra, Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians agreed to do it. Walter Barnes who was originally from Pittsburgh had moved to Chicago and was playing in a club owned by Al Capone’s brother. So, he was well funded, well dressed, and well instrumented. They were in the area and they agreed to do it. I take the audience to the two weeks leading up to that big dance. Everybody was preparing to go. They sold out the tickets. When everyone found out that Walter Barnes was performing, the ticket sales jumped up. It was just all the talk. Not only in Natchez but surrounding counties. Of course, my grandfather and grandmother, who were very young at the time, were excited to go. A couple of high schoolsers and graduating seniors were allowed to go to the dance. They were so excited but tragically, many of them lost their lives in the fire. Two-hundred-and-nine that we know of have been identified, but so many others who were not identified, were just buried in mass graves. Through this show, I really wanna portray both the joy and pain—and then the ride through grief from those ashes that people had to live through after the fact.
Do you think this is something educational? Everything I write is meant to be edutainment. It’s educational and entertaining. It always has a redemptive value. My tagline for the Purpose and Power Connection is, “Creatively bringing faith to life through movement.” It is a faith message and an educational message. I talk about the positive things, like some of the fire codes and building codes—the benefits that came about as a result of the fire - , as well as the entertainment values. One would think that there is nothing funny or hilarious about it but there is some moments, in the stage play, of great fun and laughter. I think it’s a well rounded show for people who like history and folks that like African American History and just people who like to be entertained. It’s some of all of that.
If you can go back and change something during that time, what would it be? Well, I’d have to say without question that my grandfather boarded up the windows and doors to keep people out and so that the people on the inside could have a good time. He in his wildest dreams, never thought that it would cause any harm at all. He had dances there before. This was the biggest by far. But, he knew that “gate-crashers” would come in late and get a few sets of Walter Barnes. He, along with other men and people in the club decided to board up the windows and doors. You know, at that time, that wasn’t illegal. Certain codes were not enforced. I originally heard that panic bars came about as a result after the fire. But, that’s not entirely true. Panic bars had been invented but the laws to have them on doors had not been enforced. Before this fire, you could pull the door open. During the fire, with so many people trying to get out the door, many folks suffocated and were trampled because they could not open the doors inward. As a result of the fire, the building codes were changed so that doors would have to open to the outside. That was the benefit through the midst of this tragedy. I would probably have changed the fact that my grandfather boarded the doors and windows although some people got out through the windows. But, in the midst of that, God turns everything around for good. For that reason, buildings have doors that open to the outside to allow better access out. Also, the insides of buildings have to be finished as well. You can’t just have open sheetrock. That was a result of the fire as well.
Are you going to tour with this play or musical? Well, that would be a joy especially to take it to Natchez. It would be my dream to be able to tour. But, I recognize just like with the ones I do for church when people ask me to take it on the road, it takes money. If we have an investor or if it’s funded somehow to be able to do that, I’d absolutely love to do it. At this time, there are no plans in place to tour with it. I’m certainly not leaving that out.
Would you like to share anything else? “The joy of having an independent ministry like the Purpose and Power Connections which is bringing together actors, dancers, and artist from various backgrounds, denominations and fields of study. Some of the actors are highly regarded, whereas others have done it through the church, and others just have a desire to do it. I think there’s value in that. That’s true community theater to me. If everyone was on the same skill level and had many credits to their name, sometime that takes the fun out of it. I get a great joy out of bringing people together. Many of whom, have never worked together before. Even now, some haven’t been on stage as actors before dance ministries, and dance companies. They just come together to do this work because they see value in unity, collaborations, and connecting.
Do you think this is therapeutic for the youth to come out, see what transpired then, and do better now? I do. I believe that it’s not only therapeutic, but through the education of finding out what happened and hearing this tragic story of how people lost their lives, and how people sacrifice when they throw away two hundred dollars for a pair of sneakers now. It was a big deal to spend seventy-five cents for the dance. People worked the hours so they could go and hear an all-colored orchestra. I believe that there is value in knowing the history of what these groups of people were willing to do to have quality entertainment - just to be able to have a fun night out. Even my great grandmother made sacrifices so that her daughter could go to the club that night. My great grandmother was a domestic who worked for several white families which made it possible for her daughter, my grandmother, to buy a ticket and perhaps even a dress. My grandmother had graduated from high school and was planning to go to nursing school so that dream died when she died that night. My father saw the value in education and his father, Ed Frazier did as well. He wanted colored folks, in Natchez, to hear a big band… to want more and do more—and to have their names on some buildings in that town. He got his wish. My father was educated. He got his masters degree. After he passed away in 1998, the school that he was a principal over for thirty-years was named after him. Not all was lost in that fire. I think young people could stand to learn a lot from it.
For more information on Danes Frazier Turner and her projects, please visit www.purposeandpower.org