When Brennan was 9 years old, the Bucks moved to Ladue. She graduated from Webster University and got her first teaching job at Sumner High School in St. Louis City, which has been her home since she married Michael Brennan over three decades ago. They are the parents of two adult children, and Mike Brennan works in education administration. During her 38 years of teaching, Beverly moved from public school to the Performing Arts Magnet School, and finally, 19 years ago to Harris-Stowe State University where she has found her niche in the Speech and Drama Department. She also picked up an M.F.A. along the way, but she came to miss something she had loved in her “past life,” performing.
Bobby Norfolk is, indeed from The Ville neighborhood, and was educated at Sumner High. He has nothing but praise for the academic and performing arts training he received there. He, too, has had a varied career, including a long stint as a Park Ranger at the St. Louis Gateway Arch Expansion Museum. He presented a regular program there, as did all the rangers, but Jan Dolan, now his booking agent and erstwhile fellow ranger said, “Everyone always wanted to hear Bobby do the talks.” As he tells it, he was reading to his young son, and the habit evolved into bedroom “productions,” where Bobby created characters and acted out parts. He began working as a professional storyteller in schools, at festivals—wherever stories were being told—in 1979. His material is tailored to be age appropriate, and when he performs for children, he talks about morals, tolerance, and being a better person. Particularly relevant these days for GLBT youth is a program he does on bullying.
Bobby has achieved many honors in his career including three Emmy Awards, the 2009 National Circle of Excellence Oracle Award, the Parents’ Choice Gold Award, and too many others to mention. He has produced 10 CDs and is considered an international expert in his field. He’s also done stand-up comedy at the Funny Bone and acted with The Black Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Along the way, the “Ville” met the “Hill” when Bobby took a gig at his Alma Mater, Harris-Stowe State University and he and Beverly got acquainted.
Sunday, Dec. 19 at 3 p.m., the two of them will perform a “double header”: Beverly’s cabaret which incorporates songs she loves from the various periods of her life and the places she lived, and Bobby’s one-man show entitled “Shadowball,” about the Negro Baseball leagues in which he assumes the characters who made up that historic group. Beverly is directing Bobby’s show, and her regular accompanist Rick Jensen from New York with be working with her.
When I sat down with the two of them, Beverly explained that she had originally put together her cabaret for a number of reasons. First, she wanted a way to pay tribute to her dad. “I’m not a writer,” she said. “I couldn’t write a book or a story or even the kind of poem that would help me get these feelings out. So, I decided to put together a show. Not many people know my dad had a great voice and loved to sing. I have the acting and singing background (she was a member of the Muny chorus for several years and has worked as a big band vocalist), so that was the way to go. He was a complicated man in some ways and a simple man in others, but his joyful side, to me, was about music.”
Her successful show, St. Louie Woman was performed in St. Louis last July and subsequently in Chicago. She tells stories about growing up on the Hill (not being Italian) and Ladue (not being Jewish) and working in St. Louis City schools (not being black). Norfolk is African-American, but the two of them have common ground in their always feeling a sense of “otherness,” of being outsiders in certain ways, a feeling the GLBT community can identify with all too well.
If Brennan’s motivation was originally creating a tribute, it is still that, but the show has become more. There are still plenty of anecdotes in her patter, but she said the overall feeling is more “upbeat.” Norfolk is just an upbeat person, and a lot of fun to talk to, but he turns serious when he discusses the Negro League players. The St. Louis version of his show is “narrated” by our own James “Cool Papa” Bell, “the fastest man ever to play professional baseball.” (The Kansas City version is told by Satchel Paige.)
When I asked Norfolk if he was a baseball fan, the answer was not what I expected. “No, I’m not,” he said. “I can count the number of times I’ve been to Busch Stadium on one hand. I remember going there as a kid with a school group and seeing Minnie Minoso crash into an outfield wall. That didn’t look like fun. Plus the game is pretty slow. But, I am a history fan, and that’s what this [production] is all about to me.” Beverly says what Bobby is too modest to report: “He is an expert historian. The work he’s put into this project is incredible.”
“Shadowball” resurrects the bad old days of Jim Crow and segregation, but brings some amazing athletes back to life. Bobby has spent time talking with James Bell’s now 84-year-old daughter, Connie Bell Brooks, to gain insight into his subject, and she had much to teach. For example, it is a local legend that Jack Buck played for “Cool Papa’s” funeral, but that is a myth Connie was anxious to set to rest. She took care of all final expenses, including a beautiful white marble monument. What Jack Buck DID do was treat her and a group of ex-Negro-Leaguers at a Country Club where they never would have been admitted in their playing days.
Both Beverly and Bobby have much to share with all of us, and they hope that you’ll take a break from the holiday madness and spend a little time hearing their stories and enjoying their music during this season. Both are passionate about their subjects, fine performers, and their “double header” will be a real Christmas treat for all of us.
Ticket information: Contact Jan Dolan: 314-968-2606 • Beverly Brennan: 314-614-9880. Tickets also available at door. The Kranzberg Arts Center is located 501 N. Grand • St Louis, MO 63103 in the Big Brother’s/Big Sister’s Building ½ block south of the Fox.
Visit Bobby Norfolk’s website: www.folktale.com for lots more on his career and the shows he offers.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT