Size matters

For the world premiere of Blind Lemon to work, either the production needs to be smaller or the space needs to be larger

You couldn't help but giggle, sitting behind wizened little Stanley Marcus at the world premiere of Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues as actors sang or spoke lines like "I can't even make enough money to buy me a loaf of bread." You had to wonder whether Marcus, who was attending a benefit night for producing entity Documentary Arts, could relate to Dallas' most influential bluesman, who started off dirt-poor and died in relative affluence, a hugely successful recording artist who may have frozen to death in Chicago, where he recorded his most famous songs from 1926 to '29. One individual in the audience introduced himself during intermission to the buttoned-down, cane-carrying Mr. Marcus and said something like, "It's a pleasure to be in the same room with two pieces of Dallas history."

That was, of course, a well-intentioned compliment phrased clumsily, sort of like when a Fort Worth audience member referred to a visiting Lauren Bacall a couple of years back as a "relic from Hollywood's Golden Age." Yet there was a certain thrill being in the audience of the Majestic's basement Experimental Theater for Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues. As a native Dallasite, a blues devotee (more so of the female singers in that genre), and a current resident of Deep Ellum, I was sometimes fascinated by the narrative of the play--written by historian Alan Govenar and actor Akin Babatunde, who also directed. Blind Lemon Jefferson was a sightless black man who felt his way with a cane across the railroad tracks to sing and play guitar at the corner of Elm and Central in Deep Ellum, a place where ethnic immigrants and African-Americans mingled for commerce and contraband, partying and professional transactions.

Office of Cultural Affairs member Margie Reese has said she wants Blind Lemon to be a signature piece for Dallas, and with that she's on to something far more significant than Trinity River levees or a new sports arena or a Starbucks in Oak Cliff. This burg will never be a "world-class city" until it goes back in time and investigates and understands its colorful historical figures. Dallas' biggest sin is a monomaniacal obsession with the future to the neglect of the past. Many people around the country think we're superficial not because we lack taste or talent, but because we're clueless as to where we came from.

So, Govenar and Babatunde's Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues helps to satisfy a hungry void with the story of the title musician (David Peaston) who became America's best-selling blues artist for three years during the late '20s. But as pure theater, they've devised a trifle, a bloated reverie that provides poseurish flourishes where facts about the still-mysterious Blind Lemon can't be summoned. You could argue that all the amenities with which Blind Lemon Jefferson's story is outfitted in this musical are antithetical to his raw, angry, plaintive sound. While trying to fill in the blanks of a legendary performer's life, Govenar and Babatunde wind up inflating and trivializing the man's mystery. Part of the overheated quality of this production might be because there's a whole lot of twisting, gyrating, hollering, and moaning going on in what is a tiny, cheaply overhauled rehearsal space.

Dallas Summer Musicals head Michael Jenkins has said much about wanting to contribute to small, original Dallas theater, but rumor has it this underground space is way overpriced for its paltry benefits. As is, this "theater" offers many deficits--namely, overhead lights that are unintentionally positioned to blind audience members sitting in several different vantage points. The space, or lack thereof, offers a terribly claustrophobic experience for actor and ticketbuyer, who are mashed together with rows stacked three deep on either side. Under certain circumstances, this wouldn't be a big deal. From the Undermain space on Main to Theatre Too in the revamped rehearsal room for Theatre Three, Dallas is no stranger to intimate, elbow-to-elbow performances. But for the most part, edgy dramas or comedies with small casts happen in those places, and Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues has too mythic and musical a heart (and too big a cast) to squeeze into this miserly cabinet.

No doubt about it, there's some incredible singing in this revue, starting with David Peaston as Blind Lemon Jefferson. Govenar says that Peaston deliberately made no attempt to mimic Blind Lemon's voice--his vocals were intended to invoke a blues mood. The bald fact is, when you compare Peaston's and Jefferson's voices, Peaston has far and away the superior instrument in power and delivery. But that's part of the problem with this show--the Grammy-nominated lead actor has a voice that's too good, too polished, too much influenced by Andrae Crouch and even (dare I guess) Luther Vandross. We know this because director Akin Babatunde makes an appearance as Blind Willie Johnson, a competing bluesman, and performs a vocal cutting contest with Blind Lemon. Peaston blows Babatunde away with his elaborate lilts and twirls, but Babatunde delivers a Howling Wolf-like rasp that feels rawer and bluesier than anything else in this show. Anything, that is, except for indispensable Dallas actress Liz Mikel, who I feared would be delivering various monologues in this show but would never be allowed to showcase her daunting vocal chops. She does finally and gorgeously cut loose--as Lillian Glenn, a forgotten area blueswoman done up in Bessie Smith-ish sequins and hair feathers, belting a tune called "Cravin' a Man." Mikel makes you wonder what a musical devoted to Glenn would be like.

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