Review: South Africa’s Kerry Hiles miraculously reprises the legend of American singer, Eva Cassidy in The Story of Eva Cassidy

Watching Kerry Hiles perform, in Wêla Kapela Productions’ The Story of Eva Cassidy, in the Thomas Pringle Hall at The National Arts Festival [NAF] 2022, was like being in a magical and alternative universe- an astonishing universe. The Story of Eva Cassidy will be on at The Kalk Bay Theatre in Cape Town, July 19 and 20, 2022 []. Do not miss this beautiful and stirring, exquisitely tender show, which won a Standard Bank Ovation Award at NAF 2022. It is tagged as a cabaret but it is also a tribute; an unforgettable homage to the late American singer, Eva Cassidy, who became famous after her death, in 1996 (cancer – melanoma), at the age of 33.

I saw The Story of Eva Cassidy at NAF, on June 24, 2022, in Makhanda (previously Grahamstown), Eastern Cape, South Africa. The mask mandate had been lifted in South Africa the day previous, June 23, on the opening day of NAF. The 50% limit on seating at indoor venues was also lifted on June 24. I walked into the Thomas Pringle (2nd floor of the Monument) and there was this packed room, with the audience transfixed on Kerry Hiles in The Story of Eva Cassidy. This was day 2 of NAF and the Standard Bank Ovation Awards were announced in the last few days of the festival, but we knew that we were watching a very special show. We were bathed in the magic of the performance by Kerry Hiles (vocals and guitar) and the band -Kurt Slabbert (guitar) and Chris Thorpe (drums). There was a collective gasp as we watched, the unwrapping of the story of Eva Cassidy. Hallelujah. There were no masks. We could inhale the air.

Besides a following in her hometown of Washington, DC, Eva Cassidy was largely unknown, during her earthly lifetime. Major record labels were reluctant to sign her as she was not easy to box in and categorise. She dipped into multiple genres – including jazz, blues, country and gospel. She knew what she wanted to sing – songs which she connected with emotionally. Her most successful album was self-financed. Working with her band, it was a scrabble to scrap together the funds. Watch the recording of her singing Somewhere over the Rainbow, on YouTube. That song stands as a homage to Eva Cassidy – dicing through the lines made famous by Judy Garland- and re-assembling them into a haunting yearning for ‘somewhere’; where things would be okay. Eva Cassidy became famous, after her death; a celebrity. Albums of her songs were released posthumously. She gained a substantial following. Sad that during her short life, this talented musician scrambled for financial recognition. There was critical acclaim and hordes of fans but financially, it was a battle for Eva Cassidy to fund her music.  Yes, it is ‘tragic’, that this talented singer died so young; that she was celebrated after her death. Major record labels and producers did not grab the opportunity to sign her up and take her on tour, to give audiences an opportunity to see this singer with a multi-layered and textured voice in action. But perhaps not. In The Story of Eva Cassidy, it come across profoundly that Eva Cassidy lived her life on her terms. Music was one aspect of her life. She worked in a tree nursery and as a mural painter and led a busy life with friends and family. Playing with her band in small clubs, made her happy. She is not here to answer, but what comes across from the Hiles cabaret and from a documentary on Cassidy, was that she was very much her own person. She would not compromise and that is inspirational. [Eva Cassidy – One Night That Changed Everything – documentary premiered Jan 3, 2021- includes footage of a gig on January 3, 1996, at a jazz club in Georgetown, Washington DC and references a “set of recordings that almost never happened, and the extraordinary success that followed told by her band members who played with her that night….”

Eva Cassidy wanted to sing on her own terms. She was reluctant to be boxed-in and told what to do. She may not have had financial success as a singer but she was appreciated and valued by her fans and that fan base has increased exponentially, after her death.

Kerry Hiles inhabits Eva Cassidy- bringing her to life in South Africa.  Eva Cassidy had no delusions of grandeur. She loved her music but it was part of life and making ends meet. At NAF, I bumped into Kerry Hiles, repeatedly as the Eva venue was at the Monument –a hub of the festival. We connected over bowls of spicy tomato soup, at Major Frasers, a pop-up eatery at the Monument. (There is an outlet in Makhanda). Hiles was always busy doing admin for a cheese factory that she runs in East London [Pickme Cheese & Yoghurt].  The cheese business was established in 2010, but kept her going during the pandemic, when live performance came to a halt. During the pandemic, Eva Cassidy was cooked up by Wêla Kapela Productions producer/director, Amada Bothma. Hiles: “Amanda and I both research the characters [for the cabarets that they work on], but her gift lies in the scriptwriting, whereas my focus is the musical aspect of the shows I am in. The Story Of Eva Cassidy started as a show which would have been linked to a Skin Cancer Awareness campaign, but that didn’t happen for various reasons.”

The Story Of Eva Cassidy has been staged previously on short runs at the Baxter, The Drama Factory and a quickie tour in East London. It was developed from a duo into a three hander, which premièred at NAF 2022. During the ongoing pandemic, Hiles immersed herself in finding layers to Eva Cassidy, continued to make cheese, do food delivers and do whatever was necessary to pay the bills. The hard work led to the Ovation Award winning season at NAF 2022.

Shortly after the festival, on Facebook, Hiles thanked her husband for his unfailing support and holding everything together in East London, while she is “gallivanting around the country as an entertainer”. Hiles gave him the shout-out, when she was performing in Once Was an Island, the Tony award winning musical. The production, staged by Wêla Kapela Production is currently on at The Baxter, Cape Town, until July 16, 2022.  Note – the use of Hiles’ words “entertainer’ in her shout-out to her husband. May we mention, that she is multiple award winning. Hiles nabbed Ovation Awards for another Wêla Kapela Productions cabaret- A Star is Born – the rise and fall of Judy Garland. The show won an Ovation at NAF 2019 -the last live festival before the pandemic arrived- and then again for the same show, in 2021, at the vNAF Fringe (virtual NAF – screened online).

As with Eva Cassidy, Hiles is sanguine about what she does; humble. She doesn’t call herself an “artist”. She is an entertainer. She is chuffed and honoured to have received the Ovation Award at NAF 2022 and grateful for the opportunities that the recognition brings with it, but she remains an entertainer. Hiles muses: “I do lots of stuff in the greater industry, so I wouldn’t be comfortable calling myself a ‘musician’ or ‘singer’ or ‘actress’, as this would ignore the times I’m also a voice artist or climb inside Hello Kitty outfits at fundraisers.”

Hiles told me that she sang from an early age. After finishing school, her musical-theatre education studies were set aside when she we to sing on cruise ships. She has worked extensively with Amanda Bothma and Wêla Kapela Productions. I think that it is Hiles’ sense of being grounded in the everyday and the challenges of life, which imbues her Eva Cassidy with a grittiness and yearning. Hiles is a grafter, a troubadour. She goes on the road with Wêla Kapela Productions, entertaining and then at home in East London, she is cheesemaker. In between. there are gigs and whatever comes her way. Hiles’ impressions of Eva Cassidy’s songs, reverberate with passion, intense emotion; longing, sadness, joy; gratitude. The Story of Eva Cassidy is a beautiful show: Catch it when it is on at a theatre near you.

Eva Cassidy at National Arts Festival, 2022: Kerry Hiles performing in Wêla Kapela Productions’ The Story of Eva Cassidy, in the Thomas Pringle Hall at The National Arts Festival [NAF] 2022, June 24. Image credit:
© TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

Poster gal: Kerry Hiles in the Thomas Pringle Hall at The National Arts Festival [NAF] 2022, June 24, with poster of The Story of Eva Cassidy, Wêla Kapela Productions. Image credit:
© TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

❇ Featured image: Kerry Hiles in Wêla Kapela Productions’ The Story of Eva Cassidy. Supplied.