Etta Cox knows her way around a song. So does Ruby, a character in “King Hedley II,” the next-to-last play in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle.
Ms. Cox plays Ruby in the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company production of the play, which opened May 11 at Mr. Wilson’s birthplace in the Hill District. But she feels no kinship with a former big band singer in her 60s who has quit singing.
“I’m not there yet,” she said in a recent interview near her North Side home. “I try to make each gig a new experience.”
She is known as a jazz singer, but jazz is not the music she grew up with. As a girl in St. Joseph, Mo., Etta Green sang gospel, classical and other popular styles.
“When I was 6, I played piano and sang a country-western song. People clapped when I finished. They really liked when I sang!”
She and other kids in her racially mixed neighborhood put on shows in her basement. It was lots of singing and dancing with no audience. It didn’t prepare her for her first real stage performance, in which she was accompanied on piano by her older sister, Florence Boldridge.
“I looked at my teacher and ran offstage!”
She still suffered from stage fright until she was 12, when she began taking voice lessons, singing classical songs. That didn’t play well at the mostly black middle school she attended.
“I was getting in a lot of fights,” she said. “People didn’t like the way I sang.”
The character Ruby appears first in another August Wilson play, “Seven Guitars,” set in the 1940s. After one of her boyfriends kills another, 25-year-old Ruby flees Alabama and makes a new start in Pittsburgh. The playwright describes her this way: “An uncommon woman, she exudes a sensuality that is electric. Everyone stops to look at her.”
RUBY: “Then they got into a fight. I tried to tell them Ruby don’t belong to nobody and Ruby ain’t gonna take but so much of anybody.”
— Act 2, Scene 2, “Seven Guitars”
When Etta was in seventh grade, James and Helen Green sent their younger daughter to a Catholic school where she was one of only two black students. At her first Mass, when the other students went to receive Holy Communion, she joined them.
“A nun came and put a cloak over me. She said, ‘Etta, you’re not Catholic. You can’t get Communion.’”
Yet she loved the music and joined the cathedral choir.
“I learned to sing in Latin. I loved Gregorian chant. It was so sacred to me, those angelic voices.”
At the school, she learned patience — and something much less angelic.
“I had never seen such cheating. The girls wrote answers on their arms and under their skirts!”
Her father, a bartender, choir member and deacon at New Hope Baptist Church, took her to their church on Sundays. He sometimes worked fancy parties with her mother, a part-time caterer who was a dietitian at the state hospital. Eighteen-year-old Etta sang at some parties. “It was pretty decent pay.”
While her sister studied piano at a conservatory in Chicago, Ms. Cox won a scholarship to Mount St. Scholastica, a Catholic women’s college in Atchison, Kan., that later merged with a men’s school to become Benedictine College. A vocal and music education major, the soprano became a member of Peaches & Cream, a college band. And she met a man from St. Louis.
“I was engaged at 19. I didn’t tell anyone. I hid the ring,” Ms. Cox said.
RUBY: “You was supposed to be there. I always felt that. I got to have somebody, too. I saw you and said you was supposed to be mine.”
— Act 1, Scene 3, “King Hedley II”
One month after her college graduation, they were married and moved to St. Louis. Ms. Cox got a job teaching music at an East St. Louis public school. During summer vacation, she performed at Six Flags amusement park in nearby Eureka — seven shows a day, seven days a week.
“I sang stuff from Broadway shows, ‘Hello Dolly,’ that kind of thing.”
Ms. Cox was not happy when her husband was transferred to Pittsburgh for work. “I was told it’s dark all the time. They turn the streetlights on at noon.”
But her arrival after a 14-hour drive from Missouri gave her hope. “We came through the Fort Pitt Tunnel at night and bam! I was so impressed.”
They stayed the first night at the Holiday Inn in Green Tree and had a few drinks in the lounge.
“A band was playing. My husband said, ‘My wife’s a singer,’ and they let me do a song. I sang ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ and I did splits. Everyone was clapping. I think they were wondering, ‘Who was that drunken singer?’”
Ms. Cox decided if she was going to be stuck in Pittsburgh, she might as well sing. Her husband introduced her to Al Dowe, a trombonist and bandleader, and she sang with his band at the Troianis’ Landmark 1836 restaurant on Fourth Avenue, Downtown.
“The band played jazz — I didn’t sing jazz! I sang ‘Misty’ because that was the only jazz song I knew.”
The couple lived in Pennsbury Village, and she performed with Bob Curry’s band and Thom Thomas’ Odd Chair Playhouse in Bethel Park. Mr. Dowe already had a singer, but he liked her voice and the way she looked in front of his band. To teach her jazz, he loaned her records by Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
“The first tune she heard was Nancy Wilson’s ‘Guess Who I Saw Today?’” he said. “She heard it and flipped!”
The records opened up a new world for the singer.
“I felt a freedom in jazz that I had never experienced before. Jazz is complete improvisation — melody and a way to feel.”
RUBY: “I always did like to sing. Seem like that was a better way of talking. You could put more meaning to it.”
— Act 2, Scene 3, “King Hedley II”
The Big Apple
Ms. Cox was singing nights and working days as a secretary Downtown at Rockwell International. For several years, she sang with the Civic Light Opera, mostly in the chorus, for “Brigadoon,” “A Little Night Music” and other shows.
Then-Post-Gazette entertainment editor George Anderson described how she got up at 6 a.m. Fridays to work a full day at Rockwell, then performed a two-hour show, “A Couple of Swells” with Lenora Nemetz at Walt Harper’s Attic. Her day ended at 1 a.m. with Mr. Dowe’s quintet at Ernie’s Esquire, a dinner-dance club in McMurray.
Rockwell president Willard F. Rockwell Jr., who was also a CLO board member, allowed Ms. Cox to take a summer off and try to make it as a singer in New York City. Shortly after she arrived, she won a part in the Broadway musical “I Love My Wife” with an all-black cast. It closed after eight weeks.
She also auditioned for “The 1940’s Radio Hour” and became understudy to Dee Dee Bridgewater. To make ends meet, Ms. Cox worked as a receptionist for the jeweler Cartier. She was told to serve tea on a silver platter to the executives. She refused. “I thought it was demeaning.”
Drugs were prevalent in New York, she said. In a recording session, the crew took a “coke break” one day. She thought they meant the cola.
“There was a mirror with a pile of coke, and they were all gathered ’round!”
Deciding she wanted to focus on jazz singing, Ms. Cox returned to Pittsburgh but continued to audition for shows in New York and took voice and dance lessons there. Her husband was no longer proud of her. “He told me, ‘Nobody likes your singing!’” He showed up one evening at a club, she said, and struck her after the show. “The next day I filed for divorce.”
She got her own apartment, but on a Super Bowl Sunday, her ex-husband found her and talked his way into the building. By the time he reached her room, she had jumped out a window into the snow. She hid until he left and returned to find he had trashed her apartment. She was evicted.
“I’m a giver,” she said. “People equate niceness with weakness. I’m not weak at all.”
RUBY: “I told him to stop. He just laughed. We was drinking from a pint bottle. I took the bottle and broke it on the car handle. I cut my hand pretty bad but I put the glass up to his throat…. I told him I wanted him to taste my blood ’cause if he didn’t move his hand from under my dress, I was gonna taste his.”
— Act 2, Scene 3, “King Hedley II”
Ms. Cox has sung and continues to sing at many local churches but found a home at Allegheny Center Alliance Church on the North Side. She teaches jazz vocal history at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, Downtown, and was named a Pittsburgh Jazz Legend in 2013 by the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. She performs regularly, usually with Mr. Dowe’s band, at nearby Alphabet City, Hotel Indigo in East Liberty and other local venues.
She is taking a break to focus on “King Hedley II,” which continues through June 3 at 1727 Bedford Ave., Hill District. Tickets are $37.50 at www.pghplaywrights.org/hedley/. Wilson’s play is set in the late 1980s in the Hill, where Ruby has moved in with her adult son. King, played by Rico Parker, resents Ruby for abandoning him to pursue her singing career, paying a friend to raise him.
RUBY: “You watch yourself. I’m still your mama.”
KING: “My mama dead. Louise my mama. That’s the only mama I know.”
— Act 1, Scene 1, “King Hedley II”
Ms. Cox, who learned at 28 that she couldn’t have children, is close to Al Jr., Mr. Dowe’s 12-year-old son. A musician like his father, he plays trombone and trumpet and attends CAPA. He called Ms. Cox “Ella” for much of his life, until a friend questioned him: “Hey, dude, why do you call your mother Ella?”
Embarrassed, he said nothing until Ms. Cox approached him later. “I said, ‘You can call me Mom if you want.’ He said, ‘Really?’
“He is a real light in my life.”
When the play ends, Ms. Cox will return to performing for the multitudes who still love to hear her sing.
“Whatever happens, I praise God. I’m glad that someone wants to listen!”
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978.