Health scare leads Doria Roberts to make bucket list, headline Variety Playhouse

It’s her party and she’ll headline a favorite venue if she wants.

Doria Roberts is throwing a birthday bash and everyone is invited. The renowned singer/songwiter  celebrate her  annual birthday party on Aug. 9 at the Variety Playhouse, the iconic institution she has loved performing in so many times as an opening act but now will perform as the main event.

With the help from her devoted wife, Calavino Donati, her wish is to open at the Variety is now coming true. But the story to get there is not an easy one. The last show she opened for at Variety was two weeks before major surgery to remove a fibroid in her uterus, a major surgery that forced her to take stock in her life and led her to come up with her first bucket list.

She and Donati are also in the midst of a campaign trying to raise funds for the East Atlanta store they own and operate, Urban Cannibals Bodega & Bites. The small business is in need of some equipment upgrades as well as money to expand its space. The couple is hoping to raise $100,000 and believes if every single one of their Facebook fans donated, the money would be raised in no time at all.

Doors for the birthday concert open at 7 p.m. on Aug. 9 with the show set to begin at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17.50 in advance and $20 the day of the show. Click here to buy tickets.

You’ve been holding concert birthday parties for many years now—how did that come about?

It started really because of my touring schedule when I was touring 10 months out of the year and how often I needed to play in Atlanta. I could only really play in Atlanta two or three times a year to get the most people at shows. So, I did a “first show of the year” and a “last show of the year” and then something in between if the timing was right. I was always home at the end of summer before heading out for my fall tours and I had to schedule a show. It happened to be on my actual birthday. It was a lot of fun so a tradition was born!

 What’s the story behind playing at the Variety?

Two weeks before I was scheduled for surgery in February, I got asked to open to for Angelique Kidjo, who is a major world music artist and who I also opened up for 10 years ago. I was feeling a little overwhelmed at that point and everyone there was taking care of me without even knowing what was going on.

I’ve played [at the Variety] several times over the years and they’ve always been good to me, respected me as a person, an artist and professional even though I stayed independent. It’s very rare for me to be 100 percent accepted in this business so I really appreciate it. Anyway, after the show this older gentleman came up to me and was like, “Six months! I give it six months until you’re headlining here!” He was implying that I was going to “make it.” So, I was talking to Calavino about it later and joked, “Yeah, it’s only going to take 20 years and 6 months!” But, we started having a serious conversation and I panicked and thought, “Maybe I should’ve signed to a major label. Should I have tried harder? Would it have hurt to change a little? What if I never get the chance to play again? What if something happens in surgery?” and on and on. I was a mess.

So, I started a bucket list, which is something I don’t really believe in as a concept. I feel like I got really lucky being able to do music for a living at such a young age so there wasn’t much else that I felt I needed to do to feel fulfilled. But, I put headlining at the Variety at the top of it because it was one of those things that you do as a “serious artist” in Atlanta. I’ve played with a lot of friends there who went on to bigger things (Josh Joplin, Jennifer Nettles, John Mayer) and, mostly, we cut our teeth and incubated at Eddie’s Attic. But, the Variety was the final proverbial launching pad. I stopped trying for it in 2000 when I really committed to staying independent because I couldn’t find anyone in the industry who would support me as an out lesbian. They loved my music but didn’t think they could sell an out black lesbian playing folk music. So, I walked away from the major label offers, my management team and all the milestones that come with that.

Calavino booked the room while I was still recovering. She told me what she had done when I was feeling a little better. I was like, “That’s a really big room!” but by that time it was too late to say no. Also, it turns out that I’ll be celebrating my 20th anniversary as a musician this year and that is a kind of “making it” in and of itself so it’s fitting that I’ll be playing there. And, that guy was right because the show is almost six months to the DAY that I played with Angelique Kidjo!

What kind of surgery did you have?

This part is hard but I’m feeling more and more that it might help someone and help me move past it. We’ve been trying to start a family for about five years and this past November we thought we had succeeded. I had every symptom of pregnancy, even obscure ones. Also, I looked about four months along so we were planning a big holiday announcement. My doctor even thought so but when I got my ultrasound two weeks later we found out it was a fibroid. These are completely normal but mine was pretty big and embedded in the cavity of my uterus. There was another golf ball sized one sort of hanging off the back as well. They were probably brought on by hormones from trying to get pregnant.

By the time I had surgery, the main one tripled in size to about grapefruit sized and I looked maybe six months pregnant—which I was trying to hide towards the end because people started asking and it was getting harder and harder to cope with that and the disappointment of not being pregnant. I had to be in the store because we were short staffed and we also didn’t announce my surgery to the public because I was dealing with a dangerous stalker around that time  and we were afraid she was going to try to come into the store if she knew I wasn’t going to be there for eight weeks. It was…awesome.

Because we still want to have children, I had to have the most invasive surgery and it’s major abdominal surgery. While I was still recovering in the hospital, I was told that [the fibroid] had started fusing to my nervous system and that in four more weeks or so I would have lost control of my bodily functions below my waist and could have gone septic. I did wind up with a little topical nerve damage but nothing significant. This fusing is something they couldn’t detect beforehand so I’m fortunate that I was able to get insurance when I did and that I also didn’t ignore the problem.

I’ve never been significantly ill in my entire adult life, never needed insurance and I tend to take natural remedies if I do catch a cold once in a while. But, this needed serious professional attention and I was able to get it. Fibroids are really common and even more so for African-American women so I never thought they could be this dangerous. I came really close. My life, Calavino’s life, could look really different right now. I try not to think, “What if the ACA hadn’t passed in October” or “What if I talked myself out of having surgery for fear of debt” or “What if we weren’t trying to get pregnant and thought I was just gaining weight so didn’t go to the doctor.” I can’t express how grateful I am that everything worked out and I want to encourage everyone to not ignore your body when it changes in inexplicable ways. I will never take my health for granted again.

Who is invited to your birthday?

Everyone! It’s all ages, wheel chair accessible and the capacity is 1,000 seats. So, basically, you and 999 of your closest friends! My shows have always been a great mix of people because that’s how I live my life. I love when folks get together and see they have something in common with someone they didn’t think they would have something in common with. Some of my best friends have been 5 years old and some have been 75 years old and the spaces I move in reflect the beautiful reality of the diverse world we live in.

What kind of cupcakes will you have?

I’ll definitely have chocolate because…chocolate. But, I usually make red velvet and a vanilla malt as well. I also make vegan cupcakes! I’m going to try to find some good gluten free ones because I can’t make those. My side of the kitchen at Urban Cannibals is too small for me to bake gluten free so I had some brought in last year, but he doesn’t have his company anymore. I’m taking suggestions!

Is there a particular group being assisted at your party and how did you select that group?

Yes, The Giving Kitchen Atlanta will be the beneficiary of a silent auction. They help restaurant workers in their time of need. I chose them because, even though I was lucky enough to get ACA insurance in time for my surgery, the $40,000 bill was reduced to about $6,000+, which is still a lot. So, I applied for a grant to an organization called Musicares, which is the philanthropic arm of the GRAMMY organization. They help professional musicians in their time of need as well. They do amazing work.

When I was thinking about the show and the significance of me being able to celebrate a birthday this year let alone be well enough to play a show, I decided I wanted to do something to pay it all forward. I chose them because The Giving Kitchen is locally based and it also supports a community Calavino has belonged to for the last 20 years and that I’ve been a part of the last five so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to bridge these two communities I belong to. There will also be a “tip jar” so that everyone has an opportunity to contribute.

How did you and Calavino meet, how long have you been together and how do you make your relationship work?

We met 18 years ago when she showed me the apartment I was moving into at the time. It was actually the apartment she was moving out of and the landlord asked her to show it because she still had a key. We were neighbors for a while and weren’t really “friends” but we knew each other and there was mutual respect. I knew she owned the Roman Lily, she knew I was a musician, but that was about it. She was at the Roman Lily 18 hours a day and I was on the road 10 months out of the year so we sort of circled each other but were never in the exact same circle at the same time.

We’ve been together for six years now and it happened exactly the way it happens in the movies. We got trapped at her restaurant during a storm and then stayed up all night talking. We knew we were really different in a lot of ways. I’m vegetarian, she’s not. I like sports, she doesn’t. She’s partial to independent films and I’m really down with mob movies or stuff blowing up and people with capes flying around. And, she actually gets manicures and pedicures! I had maybe two by the time I was 36.

But, we had a lot more in common than either of us thought. We had the important things in common. We make it work by giving each other a lot of room. It was admittedly hard at first because we are both entrenched in what we do, we both have our “Life’s Work” and it has always come first. We also both have very strong personalities and are pretty clear about who we are in the world. But, it became easier and easier because we actually like each other. Like, a lot. We love each other, sure, but we’re really good friends, too. We really enjoy being around each other even if we’re just sitting and reading. We also always have each other’s back and are supportive of each other’s work. It’s such a great feeling to finally feel completely relaxed around someone.

Tell us about the gofundme campaign for Urban Cannibals?

A couple of regular customers of ours came into the store right before I went into surgery and we just kind of…vented. We were basically freaking out about having to close the shop for the first three weeks of my recovery, losing money because of the bad weather we were having, equipment breaking over and over and just not being able to get ahead–or every time we did get ahead something would go wrong. We opened Urban Cannibals as a way to stay working, to keep moving and to wait out the economy, but we had both pretty much lost everything by then so we were behind when we started. And, even though we’ve managed to stay open for nearly five years, it’s been a really hard five years. So, they volunteered to put together a GoFundMe campaign for us! It was such an amazing gesture and we gratefully accepted. We have about 5,000 fans on Facebook and a thousand or so on our e-mail list so we figured if everyone gave $20 we’d make our goal.

What will the concert consist of? Special guest performers? Will you play new music?

I’ll have a full band with me and, instead of having one opener, I’ve asked a few friends to do a couple of songs each so I can share the night with them. I’m still confirming folks so I’ll update when I get the complete list on my Facebook page. I have lost of new music that I haven’t released so yes I’ll definitely be playing those songs but will be playing my “oldies but goodies.”

Do you have a favorite birthday memory from the past? Maybe from when you were a child?

Well, it’s not my favorite but it’s the funniest story my mom tells me. When I was turning three my mom and sisters kept saying, “Your birthday is coming! Your birthday is coming!” So, when the day arrived and all these kids showed up, I was confused and apparently asked everyone to go home since it was “my” birthday not theirs. There’s a picture of me eating a hot dog with a birthday hat on all by myself at this huge table with party favors and a cake. I don’t really remember it but I look pretty vexed I the picture so I believe them.

Why do you like to celebrate your birthday with a concert where you are the one providing the entertainment?

Back then, I was touring so much that I saw my fans more than I saw anyone so it felt only right to celebrate with them. I also wound up being my own wedding band last year when Calavino and I got married again in New Hampshire. We were originally going to go to Vermont, but it fell through. So, we moved on to New Hampshire, but I had a show booked that night. My good friend Vinx owned the venue so he made the night it into an ad-hoc reception for us with cake and champagne. Pretty funny stuff.