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Theatre in Review: Lonesome Blues (York Theatre Company)

Akin Babatunde. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Blind Lemon Jefferson isn't a household name, but he is a foundational figure in the history of the blues. Apparently, his country blues sound, which made him a star in the late 1920s, wasn't picked up by the artists who came immediately after him, but he is known to have influenced later stars like B. B. King, Carl Perkins, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. That's some legacy, any way you look at it.

In any case, York Theatre Company has done more than its share in the effort to memorialize this great blues artist. In 2007 and 2009, it presented Blind Lemon Blues, a six-person piece by Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde. Now comes Lonesome Blues, a solo show (plus guitarist), which constitutes another pass at the material based on new research that, the authors say, allows them to probe their subject in greater depth.

I didn't see Blind Lemon Blues, but if the current effort is the expanded edition, the script for its predecessor must have been written on a cocktail napkin. The authors have struggled to put together a coherent narrative out of the few pitiful scraps of information available to them, and the result is one of the sketchiest entertainments to grace the York's stage in some time. Interestingly, the authors say in their program notes that August Wilson seriously contemplated writing a play about Jefferson but abandoned the project because he had so little to work with. Instead, he wrote Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Govenar and Babatunde might have taken this story to heart.

As a result, Lonesome Blues is a remarkably vague narrative used to link a generous playlist of Jefferson's signature songs, including "Black Snake Moan" and "Teddy Bear Blues," plus some traditional songs and a few originals by the authors. The show raises questions about Jefferson -- most aptly, Why does a blind man wear glasses? -- which it is not prepared to answer. We hear about his important early friendship with Lead Belly and his career as a street singer in Dallas' Deep Ellum district. He name-drops a number of famous blues singers of the period -- among them, Bobbie Cadillac, Hattie Hudson, and Lillian Miller -- about whom most members of the audience will likely know little or nothing. (Some of them are characters in Blind Lemon Blues, as is T-Bone Walker, whom Jefferson taught to play the guitar; he is absent from the new show.) We learn nothing about his marriage, except that his wife was named Roberta. And we hear about Mayo Williams, who spirited Jefferson away to Chicago, where he recorded more than eighty songs; the show is unable to explain how Jefferson, who by now had a chauffeur and $1,500 in the bank (worth more than ten times that today), somehow died alone on a freezing Chicago street at the age of 36.

(A side note: Williams is a pretty intriguing figure. A black man who graduated from Brown University before the outbreak of World War I, he served in the army, played a few seasons of professional football, and ultimately embarked on a career as a record producer, signing blues artists first to the Paramount and Decca labels and, later, to his own companies. He had fraught relationships with many of his singers, who seemed to feel that he adopted a white man's manner and leaned on his artists to do the same. His career lasted until roughly 1970. Surely there's a play in his life story. But I digress.)

After a while, the text of Lonesome Blues comes to feel like so much wallpaper between the numbers. In contrast to Jefferson's effortless blues style, which can be heard in his many recordings that are available on the Internet, Babatunde's singing is a bit mannered; the blues don't seem to come naturally to him. Jefferson's sheer unaffected power is much missed. A major plus factor is the elegant stylings of the guitarist, David Weiss.

Katherine Owens' direction at least maintains a quick pace, though she might have done more to clarify the text. Anyway, James Morgan's set is a suitably desolate Chicago streetscape, complemented by Steve Woods' lighting and Gelacio Eric Gibson's costume design. Rather more ambitious is Jason Johnson-Spinos' sound design, which includes such effects as a rushing el train, gusts of winter wind, chimes, whispering voices, and a rattlesnake.

As it nears its conclusion, Lonesome Blues relies increasingly on its songs, including the eerie "See That My Grave is Kept Clean." This proves to be the best way to honor Jefferson, who remains an indistinct, ghostly presence throughout this intriguing, yet frustrating, piece. -- David Barbour


(25 June 2018)

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