Ariel Sowell was losing the crowd, fast.
In rehearsal, the 15-year-old from Durham had killed her comic take on the “Dreamgirls” showstopper “And I’m Telling You” – making the song about the foods, instead of a guy, she won’t let go.
And the girl had pipes. Think Jennifer Holliday/Jennifer Hudson/Levi Stubbs (the Four Tops frontman who growled “Feed Me, Seymour” as man-eating plant Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors.”)
Out in the pews of the Hayti Heritage Center on Sunday afternoon, Sowell’s fellow contestants had cheered.
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But the paying crowd two hours later was tough.
Seconds into her song, before Sowell could even let that big voice boom, the booing began.
From out of the wings came the “Sandman.” In big glasses and a bigger Afro wig, he pushed a long-handled broom to sweep the teenager off the stage. Sowell took one surprised look, put the mic back in the stand and walked off, perhaps to try another night.
Sunday’s two-hour show kicked off “Amateur Night at the Hayti,” a 16-week contest modeled on the long-running Amateur Night at the Apollo series. Each week’s winners will compete in a final show July 13 for an all-expenses paid trip to New York City and a guaranteed audition at the landmark Harlem theater.
“We are just so excited that the Apollo would let us reach out like this,” said Captain Newborn, the executive director of Next Level Veterans Outreach Campus, who has organized the talent show to raise money for the Durham nonprofit counseling center.
In a basement office, Newborn (Captain’s his real first name), opens a thick, three-ring binder filled with active case files of veterans his agency is treating for traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions related to military service.
The agency offers an alternative to Veterans Affairs programs, he says, with free mental health services and and companionship for clients ranging from 18 to 105 years old who have served in World War II to Afghanistan.
Music, Newborn says, is vital to veterans’ well being.
“A lot of them like to sing. Some of them can dance,” he said.
One day he asked a group, “What if we could get you some auditions at the Apollo?”
“And they were like, ‘Yeah, right.’”
But Newborn pursued the idea. He says “American Idol” has demonstrated North Carolina’s talent, launching the careers of Clay Aiken, Fantasia Barrino, Scotty McCreery and Kellie Pickler, among others. After four to five months of negotiations, the Apollo agreed to audition the winner of the Hayti talent competition. The outreach center has been auditioning acts, veterans and non-vets, since.
“We have so much talent. The auditions have been fierce,” Newborn said. “I’m just amazed.”
“I hope a veteran wins, but we’re gonna send the best.”
Olen Black used to watch the syndicated “Showtime at the Apollo” from his bed when he was 3 years old.
Now 23, he performed Sunday night with The Legacy Tribute Band, opening the competition with the Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just a Little More Time.”
“It’s coming back,” he said of the classic soul sound, with top artists such as Bruno Mars evoking Motown’s songs and stage stylings.
“You think Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, Pharrell,” he said. “We never left it.”
Sunday’s acts sang pop, R&B, gospel and and even gospel rap.
Aliyaha Grant’s powerhouse vocals brought down the house with Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.”
“I love the way she sings,” the Durham 10-year-old said, “and she’s just really pretty.”
Minister Michael Meeks, who served in the Army from 1970-72, sang “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord” in a gravelly baritone that brought women in the audience to their feet.
Le’Shawn Troy-Rogers closed the show with Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
“I've been really tryin’, baby,” he pleaded as he strutted across the stage. “Tryin’ to hold back these feelings for so long.”
The 26-year-old took off his jacket and untucked his shirt from his pants. He gripped the mic with one hand and reached into the crowd with the other. He dropped to his knees.
In an interview, Troy-Rogers, who started singing in Greater St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, said he picked the 1973 song for its opening notes.
“As soon as you hear the guitar you know somebody’s going to get it on,” he said. “That was real music back then.”
And the Apollo? He said it’s been his dream.
“All the history that’s come through there and performed on that stage and rubbed on that little wood,” he said about the stump that performers touch for good luck before going on stage. “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
At the end of the night, the 10 acts lined the stage and the crowd cheered separately as the hostess held her hand above each one. It was close, with Troy-Rogers edging out the competitors for a spot in the July 13 finals and a shot at the Apollo audition.
The next night, organizers realized they should have put those contestants 13 and under in a children’s category. They’ll now send two winners to New York: a child performer and an adult.
The Hayti pews were about half full Sunday. Newborn says he has enough acts to fill the next four weeks and hopes to attract more contestants and bigger crowds as word of mouth spreads.
“I’ve always fantasized about putting something together,” he said. “Sometimes you can speak something into existence.
“To be able to take it to the world-famous Apollo Theatre, that’s just a blessing.”