Sammy & Me: One-Man Show Blends Sammy Davis Jr. Bio with Autobio
Bay Street Theater is no stranger to one-actor shows where a historical figure tells their story in a uniquely intimate way — recent examples include Unbossed & Unbowed about Shirley Chisholm and All Things Equal about Ruth Bader Ginsberg — and the theater’s 2023 Mainstage production Double Helix took the concept a step further by turning the story of DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin into a musical.
However, what all these productions lack is a strong sense of “me,” or rather, a narrative that includes the playwright as a central character, the catalyst to the research being done to unearth the nuanced truth underneath the fame. This unique take on the biographical play genre is the foundation of Sammy & Me, a one-man play with music, coming to Bay Street August 14–20.
Written by Eric Jordan Young and Wendy Dann, who also directs, Sammy & Me stars Young as he explores his lifelong fascination with Rat Pack member Sammy Davis Jr. He discovered Davis at an early age and considered him “the only Black American male performer that I saw on TV regularly,” frequently featured on the 1970s variety shows that Young devoured, such as The Carol Burnett Show and The Flip Wilson Show.
“He was constantly in the circle of entertaining and always committed to being a performer in the industry. For me, it’s kind of like a no-brainer because, as a young person who was looking for a visible personality to kind of mold, emulate and shape my career from, of course I would go to the person who did it all,” Young says. “I just thought that he was a unique individual as an artist and as an entertainer, and especially as a Black American, because he was so visible to me at that time, as a young person who was interested in performance.”
While Young can’t bear to choose his favorite Sammy Davis Jr. song, he admits he loves “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” “Yes I Can,” and “I Want to Be with You” from the musical Golden Boy. “It’s always very difficult for me to say which one is my favorite, because I think I have favorite moments within each (song),” he says.”
Later recognized by his college peers for his impressive renditions of much of Davis’ catalog, Young was offered a chance to put on a large-scale production where he’d play Davis. While the offer didn’t pan out in the end, it left Young with a treasure trove of research into the singer’s life. Determined not to forfeit the project, he recruited Wendy Dann, a friend and fellow Ithaca College class of 1993 graduate, to develop the play around the concept of a boy having an honest dialog with one of their idols.
“The whole idea of Sammy & Me is about the dual biography nature of the piece. The reason why I say ‘Sammy and me’ is because this piece is just as much my story as it is Sammy Davis Jr.’s story; you definitely learn about both of us,” Young explains. “The message is clear … What do you do when you discover that your hero is flawed? Do you hold onto them, or do you let go of them?”
One of Davis’ most controversial decisions was his public support of President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, including an awkward onstage hug he gave the president during a 1972 concert that resulted in public outcry and death threats. During his research, Young was surprised to learn how Davis changed the angry hearts of an audience at Jesse Jackson’s 1973 Operation PUSH benefit concert.
“He showed up at the event to help the charity, and when he got onstage, he was booed, but he prevailed by singing “I’ve Gotta Be Me” to the crowd. He didn’t run away from the moment. He spoke up to the audience, understanding their disdain and opposition, and he explained himself and won the crowd over. He ended up getting a standing ovation at the end. That was something that I read about in depth, and it had a very big effect on me.”
In 2006, Sammy & Me made its theatrical debut and would see a handful of performances until its final show in 2010 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, earning Artvoice and Salt Awards on the way.
The production coming to Sag Harbor will be the first time in over a decade that Sammy & Me has been produced, but the show has evolved considerably alongside its creators. “We’ve redone it completely, so what Bay Street will receive is brand new,” Young says. “It’s not so abstract where people wouldn’t recognize the piece, because a lot of the script and storytelling are still intact, but the actual construction of the piece is different. I think that we have, honestly, a much clearer story. Wendy and I — being older artists who have had the opportunity to be in the business these past 13 years, learn from our mistakes and learn from the world — think it’s very exciting to see the change that has come forward in the piece.”
Being given the opportunity to revive and rework Sammy & Me in 2023 has filled Young with newfound confidence in the project and hope that there will be even greater interest in the project than during its previous run.
“There was a feeling that I ‘couldn’t’ for many years after we did the Alliance production. When we finished that in 2010, we had high hopes for the project, and we were hoping that people would want us to take it to other places and do other things, but it just wasn’t the right time; it was a different climate, theatrically,” he says, adding that now he lives by the title of Davis’ famous book: Yes I Can.
“Knowing that I ‘can’ is pretty enthralling, stimulating and scary. … (Reprising the role of Davis) is definitely a challenge for me as an actor, as a singer, as a dancer and just as a human being. It’s forcing me to pull into the deepest level of my abilities and walk into the fear.”
Young concludes, “The thing that is really stimulating about (Sammy & Me) is that what it does at the core is it explores the significance of Sammy Davis Jr.’s life and his career on artists like me and the influence that he has on performing arts on a grander scale … He did so much for the entertainment industry, but for a person like me, he did extraordinary things, and I can stand taller as a result.
For tickets to Sammy & Me at Bay Street Theater, call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.