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In Stephen Wade's hands, the lowly banjo is the key to the American experience

What happened to Stephen Wade should happen to everyone.
The young Chicagoan was having a perfectly average early '60s American childhood until the night he saw the Beatles on the "Ed Sullivan Show." From that point forward, the Creepy Crawlers set began to gather loam in the closet as Wade devoted almost all of his leisure time to his new passion--the guitar. The multifarious paths of professional destiny that had beckoned like question marks before him--grocer? metallurgist? actuary?--coalesced into one true, shining path: he would be a musician. If only we all could have such clear encounters with Fate.

Shortly after picking up the guitar, Wade had another epiphany when a music teacher introduced him to the banjo. His devotion to this instrument precluded Wade from becoming another Segovia, as his father had hoped, though he did acquire something of Segovia's musical mastery over the banjo.

That instrument, in turn, became Wade's key to the American experience. By tracing the stylistic roots of America's banjo masters, Wade found himself immersed in the folk history of the Appalachian mountains, the slave-tilled fields of the South, Mississippi River paddlewheelers, the gold mines of the West, traveling medicine shows, rattling rail cars, and other scenes of the American drama that the unique plinking sound of the banjo has accompanied.

Combining his musical skills with his love of folk history, Wade created a one-man show called Banjo Dancing. It ran for an unprecedented 10 years at Washington, D.C.'s, redoubtable Arena Stage and played before enthusiastic audiences in Fort Worth in 1992. On the Way Home, now playing at the TCU Theatre courtesy of Stage West, is a new version of Wade's unique brand of oral history.

Drawing from old newspapers, novels, legends and folklore, Wade recounts stories with the help of his banjo, which serves as prop, interpreter, hero, villain, or lover, as the case may be. At one moment he's a 97-year-old slave recalling his flight to freedom; in the next he's a widow whose husband refuses to stay buried. All the while the banjo is tinkling or bounding underneath the narrative like a mountain stream.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that the banjo is a hopelessly retro instrument, just the thing for pinheaded Appalachian boys to strum in Deliverance, perhaps, or for Steve Martin to pluck during a goofball fake-arrow-through-the-head routine, but not exactly the axe of choice for the MTV generation.

Possibly. But you might have said the same thing about the mechanics of 19th-century whaling before picking up Moby Dick. Which only proves again the power of an artist's passion to make us see things his or her way.

As Wade says, "When I first heard the five-string banjo, it was a world of sound. Down low it could bark, and up high it'd be like bells. It could be strident and then whisper. It's free. It's eccentric. It's hard to tune. It's recalcitrant. It's like a musical mule."

After a little proselytizing like this, you listen to the banjo with new ears.

Wade tells his stories on a stage set like a cozy cabin in the woods. The walls are adorned with bookshelves and a rack hung with various types of banjos and guitars. He selects an instrument based on a story's subject or location in time. There's an old, weatherbeaten fretless job, a banjo made from a gourd revealing the instrument's African and slave roots, an ornate one dating from the Civil War, and several of the modern chrome-plated kind, like the guy at Shakey's Pizza used to play when you went for a snack after a Pee Wee baseball game.

Wade picks up a banjo and breaks into a melody, usually keeping a strong beat with his boot-clad foot. Sporting two outcroppings of Brillo-pad hair, with a touch of egg-shell-colored baldness on top of his pate, he gazes at the audience like a kindly, sympathetic clown.

Next come the stories. He's culled several from the works of well-known writers, such as Mark Twain or William Saroyan. But most are anonymous folk tales. Reveling in these mostly rural yarns, Wade distills his stories into a litany of classic American one-liners, boasts, and putdowns: "Soil so rich we buried a mule and up sprang a crop of little jackasses."

The main weakness in the program is that Wade is a better musician than storyteller. Though his delivery is energetic, his love for the material heartfelt, his range as an actor is limited. This is not Hal Holbrook doing "Mark Twain Tonight." Incapable of truly inhabiting the personalities of his characters, Wade must content himself with just the suggestion of a character's dialect, age, or sex.

In addition, many of the stories follow the same American tall-tale pattern, which relies on epic exaggeration for its humor rather than on wit or sarcasm. That means it may not be sophisticated enough (or mean-spirited enough) for contemporary audiences. Indeed, a recent audience was composed almost entirely of snowy-haired sexagenarian types, some of whom appeared old enough to have known Mark Twain personally.

What's really expressive and emotive about Wade's show is his banjo playing. During several spots in the program, he takes a break from yarn-spinning and plays a variety of waltzes and wedding marches. Hearing the range of tones and the subtleness and grace a master is capable of producing on the instrument is enough to convert the staunchest banjophobe. Wade also exhibits extraordinary dexterity and fluidity finger-picking an acoustic guitar.

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