Lonette McKee sits in the airy, sunlit living room of her Brooklyn apartment while four cockatiels perform a helter-skelter ballet overhead. One perches on her hand, then—when Lonette offers a kiss—sticks its head inside her mouth for a look-see. McKee’s husband, Leo Compton, is also swooping and soaring—answering the phone, refilling her Perrier, fetching a pencil. “Want some of my apple?” Lonette asks one bird, who takes a nibble before flying off. Birds and husbands aren’t the only airborne things in this apartment. After 15 years, McKee’s career as an actress and singer has finally taken wing. Suddenly her name is everywhere—in Bertrand Tavernier’s film about the late ’50s jazz scene in Paris, ‘Round Midnight, in a Miami Wee episode and in a one-woman off-Broadway show about Billie Holiday, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
McKee’s success stems from her lauded performance in The Cotton Club, in which she played Gregory Hines’s girlfriend. Like that chanteuse, Lonette, who is the product of a white mother of Swedish descent and a black father, could also pass for white. “In the Detroit ghetto where I grew up, I wasn’t accepted by white kids or black,” says the skinny, statuesque McKee, 31. “I just didn’t fit in.” After struggling most of her life for a label, she’s found one. “Now I consider myself black, because I’ve never been given the same treatment, respect or opportunities that blond, blue-eyed, white girls have gotten.”
Lonette and Leo, who is white, were married Feb. 1, 1983. They met in San Francisco, during a pre-Broadway run of a Showboat revival. Lonette was playing Julie, a role that earned her a 1983 Tony nomination. Leo was moonlighting as the backstage doorman while working days as a youth counselor. Also raised in a Detroit ghetto, Leo proposed backstage after a one-week courtship. “I answered yes without thinking twice,” says Lonette. “I then walked onstage and sang Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Although the show’s star, Donald O’Connor, was quick to offer his congratulations, some of the other cast members weren’t so cordial. “Some felt it was a status thing, that the star shouldn’t be dating the doorman,” says Lonette, adding, “Really, who cares?”
But the two consider themselves well matched, sharing a love for animals (they are active anti-vivisectionists), exercise (their living room resembles a gym) and children. “We definitely plan to have lots of babies,” says Leo, 30, a program developer for the New York City Youth Bureau.
For McKee, having a family is especially important. She hopes to give her children the home life that she and her sisters, Kathy, 35, and Carol, 26, never knew. Although she remains close to her mother, Dorothy, Lonette and her father, Lonnie, a retired bricklayer at Ford Motor Co., parted company early on. After cutting a regional hit record, Stop, Don’t Worry About It, Lonette quit ninth grade and moved to Los Angeles to live with sister Kathy. Lonette’s main reason for leaving was to get away from her father. “I really hated him,” she says. “He was pretty cruel. He was a hunter. He killed animals in front of me—even my pets.”
Lonette remained bitter until April 1985, when her younger sister, who has cerebral palsy, was hospitalized because of a bad reaction to her medication. Filming ‘Round Midnight in Paris at the time, Lonette flew back to Detroit. When she arrived at the hospital, she found her father—who had since separated from her mother—sitting in the waiting room. “I saw a broken, illiterate, 75-year-old man,” she says. “I re-evaluated my childhood and cried for him. I saw his eyes. I know he’s sorry. He came from a family who refused to love him. I refuse to judge him. I refuse to judge my father anymore.”
McKee had a secondary motive for leaving home at age 14: to pursue show business. After arriving in L.A., she performed as a singer-dancer on TV’s The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters, worked as a secretary for Bill Cosby and cut an unsuccessful record album. Then came her first major break, Sparkle, a critically acclaimed 1976 film in which she played a member of a Motown singing group similar to the Supremes.
Stage and movie work kept McKee’s career steadily building until her breakout performance in The Cotton Club. Her personal life, however, was more problematic. “After Sparkle I had a period where I was kind of wild. I wasn’t a bad, bad girl. The worst thing I did was experiment with coke for a year. I made a lot of mistakes during that period.”
McKee dated Warren Beatty and screenwriter Robert Towne but became more seriously involved with “a couple of pretty rough boyfriends,” she says, blaming her childhood for her hard-to-break dependency on violent men. She broke the cycle when she lived with a man who insisted she take voice, dance and acting lessons and be proud of being black. He provided her with advice (“He said I should be utilizing my talents so that I’d have the base and technique to keep working”) as well as a maid, a pool and a diamond ring. Unfortunately, “he had a wife and three children,” says McKee. “I was his mistress, his plaything. But I left because I felt like a bird in a gilded cage. I decided I would never live with another woman’s man again.”
It’s painful experiences like these that Lonette now draws on to evoke the life and songs of Billie Holiday in Lady Day. For 90 minutes eight times a week, McKee appears at New York’s Westside Arts Theater, portraying the great jazz singer as she performed in her last gig.
By design, the resplendent McKee onstage looks nothing like the weary, drug-riddled Holiday. “It would be a great injustice to try and render an impression of a legend,” McKee says. “The director chose me because I don’t look like her. My hands aren’t swollen. I am not a beat, broken-down 44-year-old woman on her last legs. Frankly I don’t think the public wants to see that.”
Right now, nobody could be more on her feet than Lonette. Her personal life finally seems secure. “Leo has no ego problems,” she says. “No insecurities. No macho hangups. Look at him, the birds land on his head.” As for her career, Mckee has a new film, Francis Coppola’s Gardens of Stone, coming out in December, and hopes to play Lena Home in a TV movie based on the singer’s life. The only discomfort she’s suffered recently resulted from her Miami Vice episode, which aired three weeks ago. “Don Johnson kissed me goodbye on the mouth and gave me the flu,” she says, “but who can complain?” Not McKee.