Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Aki? Babatundé and David Weiss (on guitar). Photo: Carol Rosegg
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Sounds of blues tradition, R&B, gospel, soul, doo-wop, and rap resonate back through the years, treasured on recordings beginning in the 1920's and tweaked through the decades, reflecting the passage of time.
In an evocative production, the York Theatre Company's world musical salutes Blind Lemon Jefferson in Alan Govenar and Akin Babatundé's Lonesome Blues, with Babatundé portraying the bluesman. Known as the "Father of Texas Blues," Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first popular male recording solo singer/guitarist of folk/country blues. In the mid-20's, female blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey ruled the vaudeville and black theater stages but Blind Lemon Jefferson held his own with commercial success. His influence touched musicians of his day and later, from Blind Willie Johnson to Louis Armstrong to Jefferson Airplane.
Lonesome Blues is not exciting theater. It is not even great fun but its emotion honors the soul of the blues with innovative performances by Babatundé accompanied on guitar by David Weiss. Directed by Katherine Owens, Babatundé poetically expresses Jefferson's era and his psyche, shouting or moaning feelings as he traces his life. Over 30 songs and monologues merge, integrating the blues with the joys and despair of life. He portrays more than 10 different roles, including Huddie ("Lead Belly") Ledbetter, Lillian Glinn, Hattie Hudson, and Bobbie Cadillac. He sings in a two-octave range, evoking female and male singers. Fervent spiritual evocations of people in his life are expressed through a non-linear, unconventional phrasing and vocal variations, from falsetto to growly moans.
Jefferson, born blind in 1893 in rural Couchman, Texas, was largely influenced by jazz improvisations and Mexican flamenco guitar. Learning to play guitar and sing, he expressed his emotions on the street corners of Dallas, coloring his guitar with arpeggios and vocals that were later adapted by musicians like T-Bone Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Jefferson's original songs reflected the humor, poignancy and irony of the world around him. In 1925 he began recording and produced almost 100 recordings until his death in 1929.
"I listened to Blind Lemon Jefferson every day for five years. He was the voice of Black America at that moment," claims Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. He wanted to write a play about Jefferson but material about his life was scarce, so he created Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, about one of Jefferson's contemporaries.
Although Govenar and Babatundé had produced earlier musicals about Jefferson's life, including Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues (1998) and later Blind Lemon Blues (2007 and 2009), they continued to explore Jefferson's life and music. The current play, Lonesome Blues, is all memory, unraveling in Jefferson's mind as he sits in a Chicago train station on Dec. 19, 1929.
Artistic Director James Morgan designed a set inspired from an evocative photograph he took in Florida that is oddly fitting for this memory play in a freezing Chicago train station. Papers scattered against a brick wall speaks of the Windy City and a tromp l'oeil sidewalk designed by Michael and Jacob Harbeck add to the urban mood with Steve Woods' lighting and Jason Spinos' projections and sound. Gelacio Eric Gibson dressed Babatundé in a worn black suit, white scarf and round black glasses.
Songs that spoke for Blind Lemon Jefferson include traditional songs like "Motherless Child" and "Deep Ellum Blue." Govenar and Babatundé added some original works ("So Cold in Chicago") but most of the music was by Jefferson himself, including "Match Box Blues," "Christmas Eve Blues" and "All I Want Is That Pure Religion." Perhaps most important of his songs is "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," lyrics later inscribed on his new headstone in the Wortham, Texas cemetery, recently re-named Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery.
St. Peter's Church
619 - Lexington Avenue (Entrance on 54 Street), NYC.
Previews: June 12, 2018. Opening: June 19, 2018. Closing: July 1, 2018
Running time: 80 minutes. No intermission
Cast: Akin Babatundé and David Weiss (on guitar)
Director: Katherine Owens
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Also can be read on TotalTheater.com