Utah singer Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin talks about music and acting — and a second cancellation of ‘Mockingbird’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune)Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, Salt Lake City jazz singer and actress, sings at the Gallivan Center on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.

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March should have been a stellar month for Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin.

The Salt Lake City jazz singer and actor was set to shine on two different stages. She headlined one of the weekly Excellence in the Community concerts at the Gallivan Center on March 11. And starting on March 26, she was to star in The Grand Theatre’s long-awaited production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” playing Calpurnia, the housekeeper and caregiver to the Finch family in Harper Lee’s beloved story.

Starting her concert on the 11th, she exuded cheeriness in the face of the first stirrings of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. “There’s no emergencies going on in here,” she told her audience. “I’m going to do some upbeat songs, because I think we need it.”

But while Darby-Duffin was singing jazz standards like “Route 66” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” the nation was changing on a basketball court in Oklahoma City. The NBA game that night between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder was abruptly canceled — and soon word spread that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had contracted COVID-19.

Less than a week later — as sports leagues were suspending their seasons, state officials were closing schools, restaurants were closing to in-house dining, and cultural events large and small were canceling or postponing — The Grand decided to cancel its production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Darby-Duffin, 48, is choosing to be optimistic about the cancellation, and about the coronavirus outbreak and Wednesday’s earthquake in the Salt Lake Valley.

Darby-Duffin said she read a friend’s Facebook post this week that suggested people use the nationwide self-isolation in response to coronavirus as a chance to renew and restart one’s life.

“So, Operation Restart has started,” she said from her home in Sugar House, where she is working at her day job at Instructure. The Cottonwood Heights-based company makes the Canvas software that many schools are using to educate students during the outbreak.

Attitude on two stages

Darby-Duffin grew up in Baltimore, and at 16 joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because “the boys were cute.” (She is no longer a member. “I don’t connect with any religion,” she said.) She went to Ricks College in Idaho Falls — now known as Brigham Young University-Idaho — and the University of Utah.

Utah, where she moved permanently in 1991, “was different than Baltimore,” she said. “It was something I had only seen in TV Westerns. I literally did not know that there were streets called Main Street until I got here. I thought they only existed in movies. … I liked that I could see stars at night, and I could drive 20 minutes and go up to the mountains.”

Darby-Duffin has always been a singer, she said, though “I haven’t always been getting paid to sing.” Her specialties were rock — she once fronted a Stevie Ray Vaughn cover band — as well as pop and R&B. “I used to be kind of a belter,” she said.

She caught the acting bug in 2002, while working as a waitress at the old Green Street Social Club in Trolley Square. The bar then hosted the satirical musical “Saturday’s Voyeur,” and, “I thought, ‘I could do that.’” A couple of years later, she auditioned for “Voyeur” and got a part.

She then auditioned for The Grand’s production of the Kaufman/Hart comedy “You Can’t Take It With You,” which she thought was a musical. “I was so green, I didn’t know anything,” she said. The director wanted to see her anyway, because he needed to fill the role of a maid. Since then, she said, she has played a lot of maids and servants.

It was when Darby-Duffin auditioned for a role with Pygmalion Theatre Company, to play the jazz legend Billie Holiday — another Baltimorean — in a 2008 production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” that she discovered jazz.

Darby-Duffin went into the audition with a ton of attitude — so much so, she said, that the director, Teresa Sanderson (who’s now a friend), said, “If this girl has as much voice as she does mouth, then she’s my Billie.” She got the part in 2008, and again in 2010 when Pygmalion brought the show back.

Darby-Duffin loves performing Holiday’s songs; “God Bless the Child” has become a staple in her repertoire. But she varies her song choices, mixing old favorites like Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” and George Gershwin’s “Summertime” with newer tunes, like Adele’s “Million Years Ago,” that lend themselves nicely to jazz arrangements.

“I didn’t ever feel like I’m straining when I do jazz,” Darby-Duffin said. “You don’t have to do the song the same way any time you sing it. Jazz is more fluid, it’s loose. … Jazz allows you to carry your emotions and to wear them, more than other genres.”

‘You are going to come back’

Darby-Duffin has decided recently to shift her career focus, with less acting and more singing. But “To Kill a Mockingbird” was one play she was eager to perform.

She was cast as Calpurnia, the housekeeper to Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch and his children, in the production The Grand planned to stage in 2019. She wanted to work with director Mark Fossen, “the one director in town I haven’t worked with yet.”

Then came the legal dispute over the play, when mogul Scott Rudin’s production company demanded regional troupes — like The Grand — stop performing an older adaptation of Lee’s novel. This was because Rudin was producing a new adaptation, by Emmy- and Oscar-winning writer Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “The Social Network”), on Broadway and didn’t want other versions being performed.

Then, in a change of heart, Rudin offered to let those regional theaters produce the Sorkin version of the play — which is what The Grand was going to premiere this month, before the forced cancellation because of the coronavirus outbreak.

When Fossen started casting for the second attempt at “Mockingbird,” he said, “Dee-Dee was one of the few [in the cast] that I talked to and said, ‘You are going to come back, right?’”

Fossen said one of the lures to return is that Sorkin beefed up the Calpurnia role. “There’s just so much more to work with in this Calpurnia, and it really plays to [Darby-Duffin’s] strengths,” he said. “It’s just a joy to work with her, to have that energy in the room, to have somebody that can really own that role.”

Sorkin’s take on Calpurnia “is definitely three-dimensional,” Darby-Duffin said. “She isn’t just this cardboard cutout of what everybody thinks a Southern maid was. She’s a fixture in this family.”

Fossen agreed. “She’s not deferential, she’s not subservient,” he said. “She is an equal partner to Atticus, and Dee-Dee can completely bring that sense of power onstage.”

That’s what makes the decision to cancel the production so painful. At first, when Gov. Gary Herbert issued recommendations to ban large gatherings of more than 100 people, The Grand planned to continue with the production — but sell only 99 seats per performance in the 1,200-seat theater.

“We decided to go with 99 seats,” Darby-Duffin said. “Then the county said 50 people [maximum], and some [in the cast] said they weren’t comfortable with that. … We all wanted to find a final answer.”

Officials at The Grand hope to stage “To Kill a Mockingbird” later — but that’s up to the play’s license holders, and up to the virus.

Meanwhile, Darby-Duffin is waiting for the outbreak to blow over, and for the chance to sing for audiences again.

“In acting, you get to play other people. With music, you are the most vulnerable you can be, because you’re just yourself,” she said. “You’re interpreting other people’s music, but maybe changing the arrangement a little bit. And it’s only you connecting with the audience. It’s not you as somebody else. It’s just me, as Dee-Dee.”