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Willock and Johnson with puppets
Vocalists Toya Willock (left) and Alexis Johnson, along with their puppets Tay-Tay and Cha-Cha, were selected as finalists for the January 31 Apollo Night on Tour show. Photos by BAP

Wannabe stars shine at Apollo Amateur Night auditions here at Berkeley
16 December 2002

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY - The rain was pouring down in sheets, but it couldn't dampen the hopes of the rappers, R&B singers, mind-readers, comedians and guitar players lined up for their shot at stardom in Zellerbach Hall on December 14.

    Sasha Doppelt

Berkeley senior Sasha Doppelt teaches bellydancing at the International House

"I'm not nervous," said Alexandra "Sasha" Doppelt as she stood in the stage wings waiting for her three-minute time slot. Indeed, the UC Berkeley senior and International House resident looked relaxed and poised in her purple belly-dancing costume, explaining, "I've performed a lot, from restaurants in San Diego to teahouses in Spain." And when her turn came, she smiled, shimmied and undulated gracefully, swishing her fringe in perfect time as onlookers clapped to the music.

Doppelt was among 120 individuals and groups of all ages and talents who took the stage that day; more than 300 would-be performers were turned away after Saturday's times were filled. They were there to audition for Vanessa Brown, the Apollo Theater producer and high priestess charged with selecting 10 to 12 standouts for the Apollo Theater Amateur Night on Tour, to be hosted by Cal Performances on January 31, 2003. From that group, one lucky act will win $1,000, two plane tickets to New York, and the chance to strut their stuff live at the famous Apollo Theater stage in Harlem. There, they will compete with winners from 39 other U.S. cities in front of the notoriously raucous Apollo audience.

Theater of legends

Opening in 1914, the Apollo in 1935 became one of the first theaters in America to welcome white and black patrons, not just black performers. So many legends have played there over the years — Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, to name but a few — that the building was designated a historic landmark in 1983. The theater's Amateur Night has launched the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, the Jackson 5, and more recently, Sisqo, D'Angelo, and Lauryn Hill.


A young performer refuses to sing, even with urging from his mother.

With so much at stake, not all of the performers were as composed as the belly-dancing Doppelt. A six-year-old boy in a stylish denim jacket and low-slung baggy jeans stood paralyzed with fright until his mother rushed out to whisper words of encouragement in his ear. "Maybe you'd like to take some time and come back later," said Brown, and the mother, smiling with embarrassment, led the stony-faced boy offstage.

Sumana Harihareswara, however, "killed" in comedy parlance, getting a big laugh with her opening line: "I'm Indian, but I'm not a doctor or an engineer, believe it or not." Harihareswara, who graduated with a degree in political science from UC Berkeley in July 2002, now works at Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue. She drew from her work experience for another segment: "In the service industry, we never call our customers clients. Clients pay by the hour; customers pay by the burrito."

Harihareswara has been honing her act at various open-mike nights around Berkeley and would like to follow her inspirations Margaret Cho, Brian Malow, and Rob Cantrell into the paying funny business. "It would be terrific to hit it big and do comedy full time, whatever that means — probably not being funny 40 hours a week. But the odds here are pretty tough, so I'm not counting on it," she shrugged once she was off-stage.


Stand-up comic Sumana Harihareswara, Political Science '02, will be the only comedian competing in the Jan. 31 finals

Among the other contestants with Berkeley ties were the California Golden Overtones, an all-female, student a cappella group who sang and danced to the attitude-filled "Just Because I'm a Woman" — and earned a place in the January 31 finals. The Cal Jazz Choir will make a special appearance to open the show.

Many Bay Area residents were on hand as well, including 7-year-old Shanelle Silas from Sacramento, who sang "The Greatest Love of All" in a decidedly dress-up gown of gold lamé and black velvet. "I did good!" she bragged afterward.

Chicago-to-Oakland transplant Lamont "Rabbean" Lumpkins had seen the Apollo announcement while searching for activities for the youth he mentors through a nonprofit. It was only his fourth time on stage. Clutching some handwritten pages of loose leaf notepaper, he performed an intense spoken-word piece called "Manhood," about black men's masculinity and a murdered best friend.

"Can you memorize that?" asked Brown while Lumpkins' last ringing words still hung in the air.

"Yes — I would have, but I just wrote it this morning," he answered shakily.

"Good. That was very nice. You'll get a phone call if you're chosen."

  Talent spotter works overtime

That was more feedback than most received. Sitting impassively at a folding table at the front of the stage for hours with barely a bathroom break, Brown stopped some contestants — the off-key and the overly derivative — in mid-performance with a gracious "Thank you for coming." In defiance of her grueling schedule, with ten cities behind her and 22 to go for a total of almost 4,000 performers, Brown takes her responsibility very, very seriously. "I have to keep my attention sharp," she said. "Even though I get tired, I have to give them the same respect that I would want someone to give me."

She stays sharp, all right. When a young Asian man prefaced his R&B song with the observation that the Apollo almost never features Asian singers, Brown corrected him with the names and dates of three such acts in recent months. And when a group that had auditioned previously in Riverside took the stage, she sent them packing before they even started singing. "They thought I wouldn't recognize them!" she scoffed. "They were so disappointed, but they'd had their chance already."

    Vanessa Brown

Apollo producer Vanessa Brown snacks on cookies to keep her energy up for the endless procession of performers

It's hard to imagine how Brown could keep all of the acts straight, given the number of surly rap duos, sultry R&B crooners and gospel soloists. But she had no trouble listing the several unusual acts that had stuck in her mind that day, from the "gentleman who did a mind-reading thing where he had us all pick cards and guessed them — I've never seen anything like him before" — to a robot impersonator and two Caucasian hip-hop artists: "They rocked, and they showed that they weren't afraid to interpret a form that didn't originate with them."

She also singled out the Baby Dollz, an act comprising two fresh-faced Oakland 17-year-olds in cowboy hats and their puppets, because they "added a little twist to their act, and I liked that." Toya Willock and Alexis Johnson let Tay-Tay and Cha-Cha, dolls they'd bought in Fisherman's Wharf, take the lead crooning Whitney Houston's "When You Believe"; the girls have been singing together since they were 10, and have appeared at the special Olympics, Stop the Violence marches and Great America.

"We perform a lot for kids with special needs, and they really like the puppets," said Willock, who has been accepted to UC Berkeley but hasn't yet decided whether she'll enroll.

Be a part of the show

"There's great talent throughout the Bay Area, and this has been a tougher process than usual," said Brown, indicating the pile of contestant folders in her "maybe" pile. "I've got a stack of more talent than I need to do a good show."

The 14 finalists were announced Wednesday, December 18: vocalist Mackenzie Marshall (Concord); spoken-word artist Yejide Najee-Ullah (Berkeley); Harihareswara; gospel rapper Ashlei Williams (Oakland); vocalist Cherelle Fortiér (San Francisco); breakdancing crew Hound Dawg Truckers (San Francisco); the Baby Dollz and their puppets; acoustic guitarist and vocalist Dawn Thomas (Northridge); experimental percussionist Derique, the Electric Body Drummer (Oakland); vocalist Jessica Johnson (San Jose); hip-hop dancers Triple X Rated (Oakland); New Faces—vocalists Nyere da Silva, Tanya Stone and Carmen Traylor (San Leandro); the Golden Overtones; and tap-dancing troupe Katie’s Dancers (Martinez).

Local residents can be part of the booing and cheering audience that helps decide which contestant continues on to New York by purchasing tickets to Cal Performances' presentation of Apollo Theater Amateur Night on Tour, which will take place at 8 p.m. January 31 in Zellerbach Hall. New York Kings of Comedy/Def Jam comedians Talent and Capone will co-host the show with Monijae of the TV show "The Parkers," while C.P. Lacey acts as "The Executioner," sweeping off the crowd-displeasing acts — literally, with a broom.