Since the blues is probably America's greatest musical contribution to world culture, it's not surprising that both African-American and Anglo-American artists have attempted to translate the genre's quixotic vibe to arts both performing and static. We shouldn't be surprised that so many such experiments have failed (including Toni Morrison's weakest novel, the Gertrude Stein-ish Jazz), given that the context of a poem or a story or a play or a movie traps the spirit of the music, forces it to take root instead of allowing that groove to find its own moment. The blues becomes a style, a shell in which to house whatever bitches about the unfairness of life the artist might have, instead of the total experience that an abstract, nonverbal expression like music provides.
What might surprise us is that black non-musical artists haven't been much more successful at this cross-pollination experiment than whites. Whether it be Spike Lee with Mo Better Blues or August Wilson with his last, Tony-snubbed opus, the blues has stubbornly resisted capture by even the most talented descendants of the men and women who birthed it. This has not been an especially catastrophic cultural misfire, since black Americans have by and large moved away from what many have perceived as the psychological trap of the blues practiced out of its time and place. White artists crowded out black performers in the '50s and '60s, and now, 30 years later, African-Americans seem to be saying to Anglos, "If you want it, take it; we've moved on."
Playwright and stage-film-TV actor Keith Glover was born in a generation that saw funk roll into the hard, soot- and blood-laced snowball known as hip hop. He is also a black Southerner, born and raised in Alabama. Conventional wisdom says that this means he suffered a brand of racism more vicious and institutionalized (an assumption challenged by Alexis de Tocqueville as well as by many blacks raised in the North). But as black Southerners will tell you, the sense of tradition that region engenders has thrived among African-Americans in spite of, or probably because of, the plainspoken bigotry of the post-Reconstruction South.
I'd venture to guess that Glover's newest play, Thunder Knocking on the Door, which receives its world premiere in the Dallas Theater Center's latest production, is a lifeline stretching all the way back to his childhood in a little town called Bessemer , which is precisely where the cheeky events of Thunder transpire. Luckily, Mr. Glover didn't collaborate with anyone, or himself attempt, to write new songs in the blues vernacular. Although the show is crammed full of gutbucket blues, R&B scorchers, and a traditional or two, it proves more ambitious than a mere revue, thanks to Glover's tight, witty control of the myth he has borrowed. Under the direction of Marion McClinton, the smooth flow of bracing songs and delicious, off-the-cuff choreography by Ken Robertson rushes over the willing cast, making them sharp and glittery diamonds. The live musical accompaniment by a trio of seasoned New York musicians--Quentin Franklin on bass, Marvin Horne on guitar, and Richard Rivers on drums--lends the proceedings a "bucket of blood" urgency.
The show opens in the 1960s Bessemer home of Good Sister Dupree (Harriet D. Foy), a thrice-widowed woman whose family travails have made her resistant to the idea of change, even if it means marrying Dregster (Charles Weldon), the man she loves. Dregster is the twin brother of her previous dead husband Jaguar Dupree, a legendary axeman who gave her two children--impetuous Jaguar, Jr. (Victor Mack) and tender-hearted Glory (Shawana Kemp). Even as young adults, this pair is a handful--Jaguar, Jr. has added rhythm to the blues of his father's heritage and parlayed it into a fledgling recording career in the big city. Meanwhile, poor Glory, her heart broken by a faithless dog of a man, went blind after she wandered into oncoming traffic and was struck by a Chevrolet.
The household is shaken up with the arrival of a blue-eyed, wildly handsome stranger named Marvell Thunder (Lester Purry), who has established previous associations with the Dupree family. He is the imp, the shapeshifter, the magic man who challenged Jaguar, Sr. to a cutting contest and lost; similarly engaged the arrogant Jaguar, Jr., and won the guitar his father gave to him; and now comes for the second guitar that Jaguar, Sr. bestowed on his other child, Glory.
Thunder Knocking on the Door isn't content to rest on the laurels of classic tunes by Willie Dixon, B.B. King, James Brown, and Freddie King. Glover's script is shot through with the kind of creepy hoodoo imagery one guesses Glover got a taste of as a child in Alabama, and distributes it so smartly throughout the evening, the result is less moody history lesson than propulsive subconscious safari. The weird and sometimes benevolent supernaturalism made plausible in this show ventures into that genre known as magic realism, where cultural superstition meets human need on an open, level playing field.
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One technical note--the actors were individually wired with mikes, which usually works far better than placing static microphones around the stage, but the individual singers, especially the women, were sometimes difficult to hear, their lyrics blanded out of the mix. DTC officials were nice enough to place me front row center for the Sunday night show. Right before the second act started, I moved to an empty seat toward the back of the theater and experienced marginally better reception, which just goes to show that the most expensive seats aren't always the best, especially at an intimate venue like the Kalita Humphreys.
Also, I wanted more of the loose-limbed movement, especially during the buildup to the climactic showdown, that elevated the best songs in this show to sweet, sassy poetry. One of the most awesome moments, typical of the power of this musical at its most intimate, is also the quietest. It comes during the first act, when Marvell Thunder casts a spell on Good Sister Dupree as she tries to step between his salacious words of enchantment to Glory. As the lights fall to red and the trio behind her kicks into a wicked bump, Harriet D. Foy loses herself in a sultry, hip-swaying dance she performs all by herself. Foy looks like the shapeshifter's charisma has shown her religion, but their communion is lust.
Thunder Knocking on the Door is vibrantly entertaining in its Dallas Theater Center debut, but there's a lingering sense after the curtain closes that the show still hasn't stretched its wings and taken flight. This is the nature of the beast for debut works, especially musical ones, which is why the phrase "world premiere" slapped over a marquee isn't as nifty as it initially suggests. No matter what the play's final destination is--the production and press notes don't mention it, but if I were Glover and company I'd mortgage a few kidneys to get this baby on Broadway--Thunder Knocking on the Door, especially with this cast, issues a roof-raising invitation to explore a seminal American mythology. When the shapeshifter calls your name, don't resist the temptation.
Thunder Knocking on the Door runs through Mar 9. Call 522-