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Size matters

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.  

There's another awesome Dallas actor in this show, Terry Martin, whom I didn't expect to sing but was enlisted to be the eyes through which we see the story of Blind Lemon Jefferson. He plays the historian part, the Alan Govenar role, a man named Eli who trudges through Wortham, Texas, looking for Jefferson's grave. As written here, it's not a role, but a catalyst, a reactor, a recorder. The actor who plays it isn't given much to do onstage, but the superlative Martin is one of those rare talents who can turn famine into feast. He spends a lot of time listening to stories with a serious expression on his face, but Martin's never ponderous or insignificant when he's in a scene. He can be silent and contemplative and still hold your attention. He also does a brief, crisp turn as the racist Paramount Records executive who takes over (and takes credit for) Blind Lemon's national career.

All that praise can't be heaped upon the chorus of dancers in Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues. Once again, I'd like to see this show in a larger, more appropriate venue to judge the success of SMU choreographer Joe Orlando's hip-swaying, shoulder-dislocating, pose-striking moves. In the Majestic Theatre's itty-bitty basement, the dancers aren't embarrassing, just unnecessary and occasionally obtrusive. We feel as if the life of Jefferson is being expressed through the cast of Fame in a high school variety show. All that movement looks and feels pretentious, antithetical to the spontaneous streetcorner raspings and bellowings of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Indeed, the whole production, riveting as it sometimes is, feels as plotted and canned as the directions that Jefferson reacted against when he was invited into a Chicago studio by opportunistic producers.

Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues runs through June 12. Call (214) 515-0543.

Banter
If you haven't gotten your chick fix in a while and you're jonesing bad about it, then let Echo Theatre be your Dr. Feelgood. Echo Presents... is its evening of five selections by women actors-writers-musicians. Anna Brownsted presents a "multimedia poem" about being old at age 25 called Matron, Maiden, Main-Dish Tart; Ground Level Dance Company performs original choreography; singer Laurie McNair delivers original tunes; and actress Jane McFarlane performs Gretchen Elizabeth Smith's one-woman show about Sarah Bernhardt, Writing the Legend.

The evening's centerpiece, though, is a half-hour solo performance by SMU professor and writer-actress Rhonda Blair. American Jesus is a fictionalized semi-autobiographical meditation on growing up female in a Christian fundamentalist household, a little bit like an American theatrical version of Jeannette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

"Hmm, how personal should I get here?" Blair wonders aloud when asked about her own religious upbringing. "I'm not a Christian anymore, I'm a Buddhist. It was a 10-year journey after high school for me to reconcile my love of theater with my spirituality, to fully understand that I and my friends weren't going to hell because we disagreed with the values of my childhood."

American Jesus is a reaction to that, using hymns and Bible text and character monologues to make connections between gender, the human body, and literal readings of Christian law. There is another aspect to the show that Blair says makes it uniquely of these United States.

"Besides being about God or Satan, heaven or hell, it's also about Taco Bell," she notes. "I mix fundamentalism with product marketing. It's the links between the deepest faith and our beauty and economic power. Part of my challenge is being respectful of differences in belief. I don't want to replicate the judgmentalism, the splitting apart in certain aspects of religious fundamentalism."

Blair's last major performance piece was I Used to Be One Hot Number for Dallas Theater Center's Big D Festival of the Unexpected in 1996. American Jesus has been performed only once before, at the Performance Studies International showcase in Wales. Blair, like many performers, is wary of the term "performance art," but she does relate in many ways to a famous Los Angeles-based performance artist with whom she has worked.  

"Tim Miller fascinates me. I so value what he does," Blair says. "He's trying to recover the fact that spirituality is connected to the body [Miller works with progressive Protestant seminaries to foster a greater Christian appreciation of sexuality]. I so respect that he's working with seminary students in Los Angeles to do that. I've actually included an e-mail from Tim in the show."

Echo Presents...runs June 3-5, 8 p.m., at Frank's Place in the Kalita Humphreys Theatre. Call (214) 824-7169.


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