“I love this story. I think you are taking an archetypal story (washed up has been), but adding in layers about race relations, music, and identity to the mix. I'm intrigued by Norma and want to root for her. Also, strangely, I think she is someone who many people can identify with because we have all felt out of place or old or washed up at times in our lives, but had to push on and find a new way. She is flawed, but strong, which is the best type of character.”
New York City, 1933. EUGENE BUTLER (20s), a Black, ambitious man runs into the Lottie Theater, clutching a folder. The marquee sign heralds the return of Norma Ann Waters, the “Godmother of Blues”. Eugene rushes to the balcony, where people of color sit. He peers down at the lavishly dressed white audience occupying the floor seating.
Backstage, NORMA ANN WATERS (50s), the strong-minded, Black female blues legend emerges from a back door, clad in fine, but faded garments. She walks with her manager, RAY RUSSELL JR., a slim Black man with a winning smile. The PROMOTER, a heavyset white man, stops them in their tracks and criticizes Norma for being late. He warns Norma that a “washed up has-been” cannot afford to be a prima donna. Norma takes a drag of her cigarette, the smoke wafting into the promoter’s face, and heads into her dressing room.
In the dressing room, a frustrated Norma complains to Ray about the faulty zipper on her dress, but with a slight adjustment, Ray finds the zipper works. Ray gently suggests Norma wear a new piece, but Norma insists on sticking with the old. She tells Ray to arrange the band as she likes, but Ray reveals she will be singing with the house band. Ray encourages her to try the new “swing” style, but Norma sees this as a white industry’s attempt to erase the blues music that defines her. Ray warns Norma that this is her last chance for a comeback.
On stage, Norma requests the pianist to play her song in Eb, but the pianist only knows it in A. When Norma sings, the white audience is attentive, but the Black audience on the balcony is disinterested. She notices a white woman mocking her worn sleeve, and overhears a Black woman on the balcony remark, “This ain’t the Norma Waters I remember”. Norma feels dejected by the soulless house band music, and storms offstage.
Backstage, Norma tells the promoter and Ray that she won’t sell out with a “white sound” and heads to her dressing room. Ray joins Norma in her moment of despair. She can no longer see the point when she has to pander to a white industry. They are interrupted by Eugene, a songwriter, who claims to have what they are looking for.
Eugene is effusive in his love for Norma’s music and hands her his sheet music, but she dismisses him. Ray escorts Eugene out, but when Eugene drops his papers, Norma spots a signed flyer from one of her own performances. Norma asks him where Eugene got it, and he reveals it was his mother’s: “You were all she listened to. She use to always sing your songs to me as a little boy.” He says his mother has passed away now. His story touches Norma, and she decides to give him a chance, despite Ray’s ardent resistance.
Later that night, Norma and Eugene take to an empty theater to rehearse. Eugene tries to play the piano, but his nerves get the better of him. Norma tells him nervousness won’t cut it in this industry. She points to her heart and says, “do what feels right here”. Eugene reflects on her words, then asks Norma why she stopped making music. Norma appears resistant, then asks Eugene about his mother. Eugene reels off all the Norma Waters numbers his mother loved, and how he learned to play from the records his mother left him. Norma opens up and tells him about losing her own mother, who inspired her to sing and use the power of her voice. She took to the stage and was selling out before she knew it. Soon enough, the white folks in the industry took advantage, making her famous but robbing her of power. Now she is here to take it back. She tells Eugene it’s time for him to embrace his power too. Eugene plays his song, and the two artists give the cleaning staff a mesmerizing performance as they find their voices together.
The following night Norma takes to the stage with her new number. The white audience clap and smile, but on the balcony, the Black audience begins to trickle away. For a moment Norma believes she has failed once again. Then, the Black audience pours through the ground floor entrance and takes to the dance floor. From the wings, Ray turns to the promoter and smiles: “She’s back!”