I am fortunate to come to work every day at The John Randall House Bed and Breakfast in the heart of Provincetown. Adorning the walls of this classic B&B is an eclectic collection of visual art – from paintings and photography to tribal masks and sculpture. On occasion, the guest rooms are graced with remarkably talented artists who represent performing and visual art forms as varied as the art on the walls.
This weekend, vocalist and cabaret artist Peggy Eason (known as “The Chocolate Diva”) stayed at the John Randall House while in town for Cabaret Fest 2015. I sat down with her on the front porch to discuss her life and career.
The first thing you sense when meeting Peggy Eason is her joy and her soul. It wasn’t surprising to learn that her friend, the late Robert Goulet, once told her that she would be a success in life because she was filled with life and sunlight. Totally blind since birth, Peggy hasn’t let that fact, or any of her other obstacles stop her from achieving her goals. As a young black woman in New York City, she was told by a councilor that college was probably not possible for her. She not only has a Masters Degree from Manhattan School of Music in both Voice and Music Education but she has a Masters Degree in Social Work from Hunter College.
And now she is taking the cabaret world by storm. In 2015 Ms. Eason was nominated for a MAC Award in New York City for her work on two shows: As I See It at Stage 72 and I’ll Show Them All at Don’t Tell Mama and was invited by Patricia Fitzpatrick to be a part of the Provincetown Cabaret Festival happening this weekend.
When did you know that you wanted to sing?
I knew that I wanted to sing at the age of seven. I started out in the chorus in grade school and then began classical training in High School, taking voice lessons and learning all the arias in German, French and Italian and I loved it. I could imitate voices I heard on the radio. Of course at that time, lead roles were reserved primarily for white women, but truthfully, I didn’t really think about being talented, I just thought of myself as someone who liked to sing. I thought everyone could sing and everyone did what I was doing. It wasn’t until later on that I realized that not everyone could do it.
Are there artists or singers that have inspired you or influenced your work?
Leontyne Price was a hero of mine because other than Marian Anderson, I had never heard of a black woman in Opera finding success as I was growing up. Ms. Price was doing Opera and so it seemed possible that I might do it as well. And Barbara Cook, (who some have compared me to as I’ve entered the cabaret world) is the other singer who has inspired.
You’ve just recently come to the world of cabaret?
I came to cabaret in 2008. I have a very competitive spirit and had heard about a class called The Singing Experience and so I did some research and took this class and started to create my first show. And then I brought the show to my teacher, Linda Amiel Burns, and I said, “I think I wrote a show,” and she tweaked some things and sure enough…I had a show!
How many shows have you done and do they highlight similar themes?
I’ve done four shows: Discover Me, Black, Blind and Beautiful, As I See It and most recently, I’ll Show Them All. I’ve worked at several venues including Don’t Tell Mama, Stage 72 and The Iridium. All the shows have been different in that they highlight different parts of my life and the things I’m trying to say through my stories and music selections. They are all ultimately about me, but my last show, for example was really about overcoming all the people in my life who said “no,” or “you can’t” and thus, I’ll show them all! I’ve been invited back to The Iridium and working on a new show titled, Movies of my Mind.
What gives you the drive that’s allowed you to overcome not only your blindness but the obstacles of finding your way as a singer?
My grandmother was a very strong woman and when I was five years old I remember her telling me two very important things: number one, never allow anyone to put limitations on you and number two, never let anyone physically, mentally or emotionally abuse you. And then she went on to say that I would be successful, but I would have to struggle. And when I got to the difficult turns in the road, I remembered her words. I think it’s because of her and her wisdom that I have the strength of character that I have.
What advise or thoughts would you give to someone interested in the cabaret scene?
Before you enter the cabaret scene make sure you are passionate and driven to do it and make sure you really have the goods. I would never tell anyone not to do it, but you have to have the vocal chops and the strength of character to be rejected. If you can’t handle criticism you don’t need to be in cabaret. Some critics can be tough and you need to be able to handle that. And the most important advice I can give, is that unless you are a big star, you have to spend money in cabaret; you don’t make money. It’s just the nature of the genre. And finally…you need a publicist. I have Richard Skipper and he started getting my name out there and within a year things were happening…much of that was due to his work and commitment to my talent.
What’s next for Peggy Eason?
My goal is to inspire people through my singing and I have a new project (a radio program I’m trying to launch) called Two of a Kind. While I really love cabaret and will continue creating more shows, it ultimately isn’t a money making venture as I mentioned. I’d like to start doing corporate events and private parties – entertaining on a small scale and bringing people joy through my stories and “bread and butter” songs. I’d also love to come back to Provincetown and do a full show and reach a new audience.
Please share a special moment or two that stand out from your time on the cabaret scene.
Two that really come to mind are when Joe Franklin (who was a long-time television and radio personality) came to my show and told an usher to send word that he couldn’t stay after the show to see me. When the show finished I walked out into the audience and he was sitting there. I said, “I thought you weren’t able to stay Joe?” And he simply said, “Peggy…I couldn’t leave you.” The other was when cabaret legend Julie Wilson came to my show and said, “You have arrived!” When the queen of cabaret tells you that you’ve arrived…that’s something you don’t forget!
I, for one, am very glad that Peggy Eason has arrived. I am hopeful that she is here to stay and will look forward to her return to Provincetown!