Seeing it through
Until a few weeks ago, this performance space beneath the Majestic Theatre was nothing more than a place where dancers killed time before going on stage--stretching out, shooting the breeze. You can still see the ballet bars and mirrors behind the black drapes that valiantly try to masquerade the room's former use. This space is quite literally nothing more than a basement illuminated by stark fluorescent bulbs embedded in a tile ceiling that looks as though it's out of a schoolroom. You will find nothing vaguely romantic about this room, nothing that even whispers big-time production, much less screams it. Then again, this is what they call starting at the bottom. There is no place to go but up from here.
But Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde and their crew have done their damnedest to transform the space into something beyond workable. The duo will inaugurate the basement on May 27 with the debut of their musical performance piece Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues, and as such, they've begun adorning the space with relics that better suit the time frame of their story, Dallas circa 1920. They joke that there's a particular kind of challenge "to making this work in a closet," a fact that's accentuated when you realize the audience is literally sitting in the middle of the action.
Positioned at both ends of the room are pieces of an old house that has been torn down; they're set up to look like front porches, like roadhouses, like any place way back when. Govenar estimates the wood and paint date back to 1919, which means they would have been in Dallas when Blind Lemon Jefferson himself strolled the streets of Deep Ellum, playing his guitar and singing his country blues songs and collecting change in the tin can wired around his neck.
"You touch that wood, you feeeeeel Blind Lemon," Govenar jokes, in a good-reverend sort of way. He smiles broadly and laughs only slightly. "No, don't put that in there." He's clearly giddy: Govenar is just days away from realizing a dream that, only a few weeks ago, he and Babatunde were convinced had disappeared in a puff of bureaucratic hot air. The two had planned to open their work on April 20, but there was the question of funds to resolve--meaning, where would they get some? But the matters of business have been straightened out; the duo raised the necessary $30,000 to get this musical off the ground from, among others, the likes of Dallas Summer Musicals and the city's Office of Cultural Affairs. So, on May 27, Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues opens just a few hundred feet from where the blues icon performed, when Central Expressway was nothing but a railroad line. "It's beyond thrilling," Babatunde says, letting out a small sigh of relief.
Getting this play onto a stage--even though Prince of Country Blues takes place, for the most part, in the middle of the room and almost in the audience members' laps--has been a long time coming. The two debuted the first act of their musical in June of last year, at Union Station, during the National Conference of the Association of American Cultures. Govenar and Babatunde were delighted when Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson offered his compliments.
But Govenar--renowned, among many other things, as a blues historian who rescued local pianist Alex Moore from the dustbin of history--began working on the concept in 1993, during some time spent in France. He had been approached by the Institute of World Cultures about writing a stage production built around a soundtrack of blues, jazz, and gospel--"a Cotton Club kind of idea," Govenar says. He even went to New York City to audition musicians for the show.
But in New York, Govenar saw two shows that changed his perception of what live musical theater could be: Jelly's Last Jam and Fool Moon. It was the latter that intrigued him the most: The show featured no dialogue at all, only two actors pantomiming to the accompaniment of the Red Clay Ramblers, who sat on stage. "I was amazed at how much they could do with simple gestures and sound," Govenar recalls. "I thought, that could be Blind Lemon. He had the cup, the guitar, the walking stick."
Govenar likes to say he was actually mulling over the idea of a Blind Lemon musical long before 1993. He repeatedly refers to it as his dream of doing it as "guerrilla theater" beneath the overpass at Central Expressway and Elm Street, where it is said Jefferson spent most of his time. But the fact is, nothing really came of the project until he met Babatunde, a playwright who could show the neophyte how to turn a concept into something you could charge money for.
For the script, Babatunde and Govenar lifted bits and pieces from Govenar's 1988 oral history Meeting the Blues, one of the definitive works done on the history of Texas blues. In the book's introduction, Govenar drives 75 miles south of Dallas to Wortham, to find the grave of Blind Lemon Jefferson. There, Govenar meets Quincy Cox, the 83-year-old cemetery caretaker who was present at the bluesman's funeral. He tells the author that "anyone over the age of 60 remembers that day well," and recounts the hundreds of black and white folk who came to put the legend into the ground.
But Cox's story tells of the death of Jefferson; he can offer nothing about the man's life. For that, the caretaker tells Govenar, he must seek out Bertha and Mamie Williams, who knew the bluesman when he was just a child. Govenar's trip to meet the sisters is unfulfilling, at best; he finds nothing more than a few curt words, a thank-you-good-day-suh, and a door slammed in his face. He is left to wonder just what in the hell he's doing out in the middle of nowhere looking for fresh information about a man who has been dead now for 70 years.
"As I drove off," Govenar writes in his introduction to Meeting the Blues, "I realized the absurdity of what I was doing." In the end, he writes, the book ended up as a cross "between history and personal chronicle"--the story of one man's journey through the blues. To that end, the musical is an extension of Govenar's book. Babatunde suggested they flesh out the book, using Govenar's introduction--his admission--as the jumping-off point.
"I told Alan, 'What's so absurd about what you've done,'" Babatunde says, recounting his reaction to Meeting the Blues. "I told him, 'That's where the journey begins.'"
As such, that's where Prince of Country Blues begins, with Eli (local actor Terry Martin) wandering around Wortham--looking for the ghost of the blues, finding nothing but dead ends before him. Eli's monologue at the beginning of the piece echoes Govenar's words in the introduction to his book: This is absurd.
"But it's more than an extension of the book," Govenar says. "It's more about the expression of the feeling in that kind of quest--trying to find meaning in the past. The only way the play can work is if it transcends me. It's about: How does the blues become a cross-cultural experience?"
Govenar and Babatunde traded dialogue over a dinner table or a desk. Sometimes the words were their own; other times they were lifted from things that had been said about Jefferson (played by Grammy-nominated R&B singer David Peaston) by those who knew him. But always, the two would check the dialogue with historians or blues scholars who had written about Jefferson or Leadbelly or Aaron "T-Bone" Walker and other figures who appear in the work. The result is something Govenar calls a "mythic portrait" of Jefferson--an approximation of legend.
"Akin showed me how you could take the words people say and sing and use them as the basis of a dialogue," Govenar says. "He helped the piece find words."
But the odd thing about Prince of Country Blues is that the words are almost secondary. The piece doesn't flow in a linear fashion. At times, it's almost impossible to follow the "story," perhaps because there isn't much of one--it's less about the man and more of a chance to hear his music, which barely exists today. The piece is impressionistic, surreal, occasionally perhaps a bit too avant even for its own good. Imagine a play being told from the perspective of a blind man, conversations reduced to babble while he tries to maintain his balance. The members of the chorus and the dancers swirl around Jefferson as he walks across the stage. He comes off half the time like a man very much lost in a world he knows nothing about.
Much of the reason Govenar, Babatunde, and choreographer Joe Orlando had to make do with this approach was that little exists about Jefferson's life. There are only abstract memories that don't add up to tell an entire story. Govenar and Jay Brakefield tried to tell Jefferson's tale in a chapter of their 1998 book Deep Ellum and Central Track, but the best they could offer were snapshots: Jefferson and Leadbelly riding the rail, Jefferson performing "Matchbox Blues" for Paramount, Jefferson playing for change in Deep Ellum. Prince of Country Blues leaves the audience with more questions than it does answers, one of which is: Just who was this man?
"History has deceived us the way it's been written," says Govenar, sounding very much like a historian trying to set things right but knowing he can never quite accomplish such a task. "Art can be a catalyst for a greater understanding of history. This isn't meant to be didactic. It's almost a metaphor."
"It's about how do you take these words and make them live," Babatunde adds. "How do you sing it? That's the fun. How do you make these words blues?" He smiles, leans back, then says in a very matter-of-fact voice, "It's out there."
That is an understatement.
Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues opens May 27 at the Majestic Theatre, 1925 Elm. The production runs through June 12. Tickets can be ordered through www.blindlemonjefferson.com, or by calling (214) 515-0543.
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