Lea DeLaria, from 'Big Boo' to Bowie

  • by Sari Staver
  • Wednesday June 6, 2018
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Lea DeLaria is probably best-known for her award-winning role as Carrie "Big Boo" Black on Netflix's popular series "Orange is the New Black." But this month San Franciscans will have a chance to see her up-close when she breezes into town for one performance of her new show, "The Music of Bowie, Jazz, and Comedy."

On Wednesday evening, June 13, the actor-comedian-jazz singer will perform at the SF Jazz Center, her first visit to the cozy venue in Hayes Valley. The music is from her most recent release, "House of David," a tribute to the late David Bowie featuring her smoky, swinging takes on Bowie classics including "Space Oddity," "Rebel Rebel" and "Fame," among others. The stand-up between numbers is DeLaria's classic, in-your-face commentary on the state of the world, similar to the style she first developed in San Francisco in the early 1980s, where her career was launched.

We caught up with DeLaria by phone at her Brooklyn apartment, where she said she was busy planning her upcoming 60th birthday party celebration (taking a group of friends to Puerto Vallarta) and getting ready for her new tour, which stops in Australia before landing in San Francisco and points east.

The apartment, she notes, "is a rental in the 'ghetto side' of Bushwick. I'm the only white person in my building." She emphasizes that despite her career success, "I'm not rich, I swear," although she concedes she does enjoy a lot of the perks of celebrity, such as the Soho cocktail party where she recently met Oprah Winfrey.

Describing herself as a "lesbian feminist dyke queer activist," DeLaria says she still knocks her head against the proverbial "glass ceiling" that exists in the entertainment industry. When DeLaria recently asked her manager whether she might be a good fit for a tryout call for a "butch dyke," "He said to me, 'I don't think they're looking for someone that butch.'

"My politics are important to me," she said. "I may not work as much, but that's okay with me."

She's been honored on many occasions by the LGBT community, including the 2015 Equality Illinois Freedom Award for her work as "a cutting-edge performer who has used her talent to entertain and enlighten millions of Americans." Without question, DeLaria is at the top of her game as she enters her seventh decade, with two Screen Actor Guild awards for her role in the popular Netflix series about life in a women's prison, which begins its sixth season this month and has already been renewed for a seventh.

The show, she points out, "is the #1 TV show in the world," watched by 100 million people in 190 countries. When I congratulated her on her midlife success breaking into television, she points out that she has succeeded despite carrying herself as "the old cool dyke" that she is. "I made history as the first openly gay comic to perform on late-night TV," she said, referring to her appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1993.

But she has also gained the respect and admiration of audiences and critics worldwide with her Broadway shows, movies, and television gigs. DeLaria received Obie and Theater World Awards and a Drama Desk nomination for her portrayal as Hildy in the Public Theatre's revival of "On the Town," an Ovation nomination for "The Boys from Syracuse," and has played both Eddie & Dr. Scott in the gender-bending Broadway musical "The Rocky Horror Show."

While lesser-known as a vocalist, DeLaria points out she's been singing since childhood, inspired by her father, a jazz pianist in Belleville, Illinois, where she grew up. Her singing career began in 2001 with her debut recording "Play It Cool," which The New York Times called "the best jazz album" of the year. The [UK] Guardian said she "talks like a coffee grinder and sounds like a cross between Ella Fitzgerald and a Broadway diva." The Times described her performance at the club Smoke as "a style that suggests a no-frills Betty Carter on steroids."

DeLaria was the featured vocalist at the 50th Anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival, and has performed in some of the most prestigious houses in the world, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Chicago Symphony, Hollywood Bowl, the Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House.

Several years ago, when deciding what her next album would be, DeLaria said she wanted to focus on the music of David Bowie. "I love him," she said. "The hardest part was picking 12 tracks out of the 100s to choose from." Describing her adaptations, DeLaria said, "They're David Bowie tunes that I've reinvented using the language of jazz."

Acknowledging that aging is harder on women than it is on men in her business, DeLaria notes that her feelings about turning 60 were reflected in the title of the show she performed in New York City, "This Is What 60 Looks Like, Bitches."

"Our society doesn't allow women to grow old gracefully, whether you're famous or not," she said. "That's just part of living in a heterosexist society. Producers still only want beautiful women. For all the talk about how 'Orange is the New Black' changed TV by offering diversity and showing the different types of women who exist in the world, it's still business-as-usual in Hollywood."

While work is important to her, DeLaria said her social life keeps her really busy, "dating, playing Words with Friends, smoking pot, hanging out with friends, and don't let me forget daytime drinking. I really, really like good tequila."

As to the future, she said, "My motto is, 'Now is the time.' I don't tend to think about the future, although I do open off-Broadway on Sept 12 in Jen Silverman's new play, 'Collective Rage.'"

And as for retirement, "There is no such thing in this business. We tend to die with our boots on, and I plan to uphold that tradition."

Tickets ($35-$95): www.SFJazz.org.