Sunday, February 18, 2007

Blind Lemon Jefferson- remembered off-Broadway

The idea of blues theatre shouldn't seem so foreign. The late August Wilson had been perfecting it for years and in this spirit comes Blind Lemon Blues.

Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde's play takes place in the 1920's and 1940's and in between, tracing connections between Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly. Jefferson (played by Babatunde) is the obvious hero but the story is mostly told by Leadbelly (played by Cavin Yarbrough, who serves as one of the musical directors and was known as half of 70's R&B duo Yarbrough and Peoples) who relates his musical apprenticeship under Jefferson. As such, we hear not only Jefferson's material but also Leadbelly's and Blind Willie Johnson's. Jefferson is seen as a loser at first and eventually triumphant but in the end, freezing to death during a snow storm. Leadbelly carries his legacy along with him and relates his place in history. Johnson is seen as a kindred spirit but also as someone who overshadowed Jefferson.

During the course of the show, some 60 traditional blues songs (including many by Jefferson) are heard during the play within its two hours- remember that back in the day, song lengths rarely lasted more than a few minutes (something that the Ramones would later take to heart). Yarbrough is still in good voice and Babatunde makes a good Jefferson, expressing not just his pride but also his sadness and dejection. The story is also told by a four-piece ensemble that sometimes functions as a Greek chorus, Jefferson's conscious, Jefferson's fan club and characters in Jefferson's songs. This includes Alisa Peoples Yarbrough (the other half of Yarbrough and Peoples and also a musical co-director of the play). Not only is she still in good voice but she also has good acting skills and plays a mean boogie-woogie piano on several songs, including Leadbelly's "Silver City Bound." Speaking of music, one of the (literally) hidden heroes of the play is guitarist Sam Swank, who plays Leadbelly's and Jefferson's guitar parts offstage.

Other than the fine song selection and interesting subject matter, what makes the play also noteworthy is that thanks to the four-piece chorus, the blues material has a soul and gospel edge to it also. Needless to say, this was part of the intention of the play, to show how these early blues songs were a well-spring of other American musical forms and not just the horrible 'devil's music' it was thought of by many back then, much less an overly-antiquated art form it's seen as now. I did have to wonder though why, other than a pre-school child, my girlfriend and I were the youngest people in the audience by a few decades, much less that there were few white audience members in attendance. That's a shame because regardless of race or age, this is an upbeat, enjoyable history lesson that should be attended.

Blind Lemon Blues is only going to be around for one more weekend so if you're at all interested, you better catch it now.


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