Blues no more

On Monday morning, Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde weren't quite sure what was going to become of their surreal, ambitious musical based on the life of Dallas blues musician Blind Lemon Jefferson. For a brief moment, the men thought they were going to come up $30,000 short and wind up with no money to stage the production they have been writing, workshopping, and rehearsing for almost a year. They thought their angel, the Dallas Summer Musicals, had flown away, leaving the historian (Govenar) and the playwright-actor (Babatunde) only to wonder what went wrong. After all, Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues was supposed to open April 20 in the Majestic Theatre's brand-new 100-seat basement space. That was eight days away--though, on Monday morning, it might as well have been 800.

It's astonishing what a difference eight hours can make. By 6 p.m. Monday, Govenar had a new opening date (May 27) and renewed optimism about a project that has, at times, come perilously close to remaining nothing more than a good idea.

"I now feel confident this is going to happen," Govenar said, only hours after wondering where and how he was going to raise the $30,000 needed for costume and set designers, actors, rehearsals...pretty much everything. Babatunde also could barely contain his glee. So much for cynicism; so much for despair.

From the beginning, the Dallas Summer Musicals and the city's Office of Cultural Affairs offered substantial support to Govenar and Babatunde. According to Margie Reese--director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, and a woman Govenar constantly refers to as a "visionary"--during the fiscal year 1997-'98, the city gave the men $7,500 to workshop the production last June. That was followed up with $15,000 the city gave them during the current fiscal year to rehearse the production and make sure actors get paid at least something.

Dallas Summer Musicals also kicked in almost $10,000 when the two men debuted the first act of Prince of Country Blues last June at the National Conference of the Association of American Cultures in Dallas--to rousing acclaim from no less than Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, author of Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. And according to Govenar, Summer Musicals President Michael Jenkins often told Govenar and Babatunde a project such as theirs was ripe for the Broadway treatment. "It was wonderful," Babatunde says. "People loved it."

Govenar--who estimates that the production has so far cost $45,000, with some of that money also coming from his Documentary Arts organization and private donations--says that in February, Jenkins told him the Summer Musicals was merely "redefining the terms" of their original agreement. Sources say that after the Summer Musicals board saw some of the production, they simply wanted to slow the pace of the proceedings--to move forward with deliberate consideration, since the Summer Musicals had never been involved with something quite so avant-garde. One look at this year's Summer Musicals schedule says more than enough: Footloose, Titanic, Ragtime, and Petula Clark in Sunset Boulevard. A far cry from non-linear reveries about long-dead black bluesmen wandering the streets of Deep Ellum, getting bilked by record companies, and dying alone in the cold.

"Summer Musicals is very, very supportive of this thing," Reese says. "When you're putting on a brand-new production, everything gets backed up. It's a high-quality work, but they're putting together a brand-new production in a brand-new space, and that takes a good deal of tolerance and patience."

Reese says the delay came about when lead actor David Peayston, a renowned gospel-R&B singer, took a job that conflicted with the scheduled opening of the musical. Govenar says Peayston accepted the gig when he discovered there was a hold-up in the production. Of course, it's now a moot point: Peayston will inhabit the Blind Lemon role on May 27.

Jenkins didn't return calls from the Dallas Observer, but Reese insists that Dallas Summer Musicals is going to provide the final $30,000 Govenar and Babatunde need to stage Prince of Country Blues in May. As well it should: After all, Jenkins is spending $800,000 to stage yet one more production of South Pacific in June--one month after the Dallas Theater Center debuts its own version of the hoary Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The Summer Musicals can well afford to underwrite Govenar and Babatunde's ambitious project. The organization has proven it can sell golden oldies to the locals: Last year's production of Oklahoma! raked in $1 million.

"Part of my job is to put people together, and if people make a commitment to me, they very rarely don't come through with those," Reese says. "The Summer Musicals agreed to outfit the space in time, and they've done that. That's why I can say they will come up with the money. If one of my organizations says, 'We'll do that,' I don't question them three or four times. I trust them, and I think they trust me.

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