by Paul Hiebert
All six of the contestants at the Apollo Amateur Night semifinals had already advanced through two rounds. Of them, only Cherayla Davis had won first place in both of her appearances. When James Brown competed in Amateur Night, he was booed. Luther Vandross and Lauryn Hill were also booed. Dave Chappelle: booed. Cherayla Davis had never been booed. And this night, she was going out first.
Cherayla is a bald-headed black woman with a noticeable gap between her two front teeth. She wore red lipstick, blue eye shadow and a tight black dress that left her left shoulder bare. The dress was new. Her black heels made her seem taller. Tattooed onto her left wrist is a Nkonsonkonson, a West African Adinkra symbol that represents strength in community and the bond of human relationships. On the inside of her right index finger is a text tattoo that reads “Friendship.” One of Cherayla’s good friends was supposed to get the same tattoo, but hasn’t yet.
The semifinals started with the house band, Ray Chew and The Crew. They played some Marvin Gaye; two frightfully talented teenagers competed in the “Stars of Tomorrow” segment; and four audience members were brought on stage to participate in an impromptu dance-off.
Then Capone came on to tell jokes. He’s a big man with a thick neck and heavy eyebrows. You would not want him to roll over you. He’s dressed in a double-breasted black vest, orange dress shirt and beige flat cap turned to the side.
Capone explained the rules of Amateur Night to the audience. You should not boo based on the contestant’s race, religion or sense of style. You should boo if the contestant lacks talent. If the booing for a particular contestant were to reach an unbearable pitch, Capone will summon The Executioner to remove the contestant. At the end of the evening, judges select the three winners based on the audience’s applause, cheers and frantic gesturing of arms.
Only the top three would advance to the Super Top Dog finale, which will be held tomorrow, October 27. There the winner will be awarded $10,000 and the adulation once bestowed upon Apollo amateur performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Michael Jackson.
* * *
A week earlier, I’d met Cherayla in a Midtown diner to discuss her life ambitions and performance strategies. She ordered a cream-of-spinach soup and expressed concern whenever my glass of water was close to empty.
Cherayla is American. She is someone who yells in the bar whenever her favorite song comes on. She was born in 1980 and raised in Kansas City, Missouri by a musical family. Her mother plays piano, her father plays guitar, her grandfather plays saxophone, her uncle plays drums and her other uncle plays violin and piano. The Davis family sings Christmas carols in harmony. Cherayla made her singing debut in church at the age of five. After high school, Cherayla earned a degree in Vocal Performance from Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri.
One summer, Cherayla worked at Adventureland in Des Moines, Iowa, where, along with other young theater types, she alternated between singing a 50s-and-60s era medley in a poodle skirt and a 80s-and-90s era medley in a sequined bolero with very high-waisted black pants. It was through performing these multiple 20-minute shows everyday in an outdoor theater that Cherayla learned the importance of stage presence. She had to make it fun, exciting, believable. Although she got bored with the oppressive repetition in early June, she understood that for families visiting the amusement park from Montana, Oklahoma or Australia, each concert had to be an unsullied experience come late August.
“I’m nervous until the moment I walk on,” said Cherayla, switching the conversation back to her approaching performance at the Apollo. “I wish I could vomit, because it would make me feel better.”
Despite Capone’s official guidelines for booing, Cherayla knows the capricious crowds at the Apollo can turn on a performer without warning.
“Everything has to be right, because somebody will find a reason to boo you. People want to boo,” she said. “I mentally prepare that it could happen, but I haven’t had to deal with it yet. I know it’s a possibility. Somebody could just not like the color of dress I have on.”
The song Cherayla had first chosen to sing at Amateur Night — and therefore must sing at every Amateur Night performance — is “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from the musical “Dreamgirls.” She watches Jennifer Holliday’s diamond-studded version of the song on YouTube about twice a day. Of the 58,000 times the video had been viewed, Cherayla thinks that at least 1000 of those belong to her.
“No matter what happens in that next show, I can say for the rest of my life that I won two times on the Apollo stage,” said Cherayla. “No matter what.”
* * *
Capone called her name. Cherayla Davis walked onstage. With both hands, she rubbed the “Tree of Hope.” It looks like a petrified stump of wood on top of a brass pedestal, and all performers at the Apollo are supposed to rub it before they begin their act.
The stump belongs to a tree that used to stand next to the Lafayette Theater on 132nd Street and Seventh Avenue in the 1930s. Unemployed entertainers would sing and dance or just gather around it for luck, sometimes getting hired on the spot by talent agents and men with briefcases. When the city scheduled the sidewalk for reconstruction, the tree had to be removed. Legend has it that people grabbed whatever they could of the auspicious plant — tearing off bark, breaking apart branches, plucking the green leaves. A portion of the tree’s trunk, they say, ended up at the Apollo Theater.
Ray Chew and The Crew began the first notes of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” as Cherayla put the microphone to her mouth.
Ten seconds in, a lone boo came from somewhere up in the balcony. Someone had decided, within ten seconds, that Cherayla was no good.
There were three possible reasons for this.
1. Someone was here to support another contestant by sabotaging Cherayla’s performance.
2. Someone understood that booing was acceptable at the Apollo Theater and could not restrain themselves from the cruel pleasure of disparaging whichever contestant stood on stage first.
3. There exists someone so well-adjusted to a world of iPhones, Red Bull and all forms of instant gratification that she or he expects a display of vocal virtuosity within the first ten seconds of a song.
Then again, perhaps someone simply didn’t like the color of Cherayla’s dress.
Whatever the reason behind the boo, it was a crucial moment. Cherayla had hardly finished the opening line, yet she was falling behind. This vanguard boo transgressed expected audience-performer decorum and made it safe for others in the audience to join in.
Cherayla continued, but more people were booing. I imagine that in that moment, the stage would feel inclined no matter which direction Cherayla walked in. Even if she was hitting her notes, the monitors would inform her that she was flat. A dangerous cycle began to form: the more boos hurled at her, the more wounded her confidence; the more wounded her confidence, the more boos hurled at her.
So Cherayla was trapped, alone with her silver microphone stand. She needed to do something incredible, to upend the situation. As the song reached for its most dramatic passages, Cherayla found room to explore its full potential and showcase her abilities. She leaned forward with a tough grin on her face. She produced substantial notes that resonated throughout the auditorium. There were perfect moments. Capone, who had been sitting behind her on a stool, got up and left the stage — meaning he wouldn’t summon The Executioner to bring Cherayla’s performance to an untimely end.
Half the attendance was cheering while the other half was booing. The sound was nauseating. Cherayla was making the most of her last 30 seconds on stage by bending her knees to the point of collapse, flexing her arms to display every muscle taut with feeling. She yelled, “I don’t wanna be free/ You’re gonna love me,” and there was something horribly sad about a demand to be loved before a crowd that can only offer a cacophony of noise in return.
She ended her performance on its long sustained note, one finger pointing toward the upper balcony. The tumult continued as she walked off stage.
* * *
The next contestant, Melvin Robinson, sang a gospel number that got the middle-aged black women out of their seats. A white man seated behind them crossed his arms and sighed, unable to see the stage. No one booed Melvin Robinson.
There was a video tribute to Tito Puente, followed by the third act: Hand Sign, a dance troupe from Japan. They were impressive. One guy did a twirling handstand, and then did it again but with his legs looped through a metal chair. No one booed Hand Sign.
R&B; artist Ginuwine made a guest appearance, performing a lackluster three songs — the highlight being 1996’s “Pony” — and experienced some moments of microphone feedback.
There was a 10-minute intermission. The DJ informed everyone that Coca-Cola products are available for consumption and Ginuwine would be in the lobby to sign autographs.
* * *
All through that, Cherayla was down in the basement, in a room underneath the stage, one of those rooms that always feels a couple degrees colder than room temperature, with fluorescent lights, mirrors that extend from floor to ceiling fastened to a wall, a few flat-screen Samsung television sets and a Coca-Cola vending machine. She could barely hear the muted din from above.
Cherayla came to New York City to make it. She moved to Harlem five years ago with the intention of working in the music business. She did have, from 2006, an associate’s degree in Record Engineering from Full Sail University in Florida and an internship at Motown Records. Things were looking good.
“When Cherayla first moved to New York, she was totally on her grind, totally trying to meet people and network in the industry,” Michelle Greene said, by phone. Michelle was Cherayla’s New York roommate for years, and also grew up in Missouri. “But I think she was kind of turned off by the politics of it, and that’s just the corporate side. She was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to do something that actually impacts lives.’ That’s when she got on at the hospital.”
After a year of bartending and looking for gigs and waiting for the man with a briefcase to arrive, Cherayla exchanged her worries for a job with benefits. For the past four years, she has been working as an administrator at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Part of Cherayla’s job is screening applicants for the residency program. Of the many who apply, only a few are accepted.
“I was tired of being poor, and a lot of people have to be poor before they make it, but I’m just not willing to do that,” Cherayla said. “You know how someone says ‘You’re so talented, you’re going to be the next _______!’ I don’t receive that anymore from people, and I don’t want that.”
These days, Cherayla says she wants to be a session singer and have no part in PR strategies, body image conversations or product endorsements. She would prefer it if nobody knew who she was; she just wants to be in the studio. “I would love to sing all day. I would love to. I would love, love, love to. But I’m not willing to put in the work it takes to be a solo artist.”
I asked Michelle what she thought would happen if Cherayla lost at the Apollo. “I think she’ll be okay,” she said. “I don’t think that one loss will deter her from singing again on the stage.”
I asked Michelle what she thought would happen if Cherayla wins. Will Cherayla start to dream again?
“I hope so, even if it’s just committing herself to go sing at an open mic once a week,” she said. “She really enjoys performing and I think that anyone who sees her perform knows how much she enjoys performing.”
* * *
Intermission ended. The Executioner came onstage dressed as James Brown and performed “Sex Machine.” The fourth contestant, Moses Harper, came on dressed as Michael Jackson. She is a rare female Jackson impersonator, and though she doesn’t sing, she does have an uncanny ability to mimic The King of Pop’s dance routine. The crowd erupted in applause.
Natalie Weiss sang the ballad “I Believe in You and Me.” She is white and wore a purple dress with black leggings. Some people booed, but not many.
Then Capone told everyone to follow him on Twitter.
The final contestant of the night was Kenichi Ebina. Kenichi is from Japan, and his vaudeville act is comprised of several parlor tricks that lack cohesion. Near the end of his performance, when he was simply waving a couple of gigantic orange flags around, many people were booing.
So then Capone called all the contestants back, and they formed a row across the stage, with Cherayla closest to stage left. Capone pointed to each performer. Cheers came for the contestants that the audience believed deserved a spot in the finals. Cherayla’s friends cheered from the balcony. The middle-aged black women next to me cheered for Melvin Robinson. A row of Japanese girls on my left cheered for Hand Sign. Everyone cheered for Moses Harper. A section of white people to my far right cheered for Natalie Weiss. A few Japanese men near the front cheered for Kenichi Ebina.
Capone said that the four contestants who received the most audience approval will stay, and the remaining two must leave. The advancing four were Natalie Weiss, Moses Harper, Hand Sign and Cherayla Davis. Cherayla clasped her hands over her mouth in disbelief.
The voting-by-applause started over again, but this time for the top three slots and with two fewer contestants.
First place: Moses Harper.
Three remained. The audience members formed new alliances and adjusted their strategies accordingly as the democratic process began anew.
Second place: Hand Sign.
It was down to Natalie Weiss and Cherayla Davis for that last coveted spot. Capone pointed to Cherayla. The audience cheered the loudest it had cheered for Cherayla all night. Capone pointed to Natalie. The audience cheered even louder.
Third place: Natalie Weiss.
Natalie stepped forward and threw her hands in the air in victory. The 30-year-old hospital administrator in the black dress pivoted to her right and walked off stage. The lush red curtain dropped and the house lights came on and the audience was released from duty.
Paul Hiebert lives in New York City.