Robert Johnson was arguably the greatest blues guitarist to ever roam the South or anywhere on this good earth. In fact, most folks don’t argue that he’s the best. Rather they argue about how the young man, who died at 27, earned that skill. The long-standing legend is that he met the Devil himself at a crossroads and offered his soul in return for silken fingers, to have a guitar be an extension of himself.
The myth is as inseparable from Johnson as rhythm is from the blues. Creative Cauldron’s production of Thunder Knocking on the Door, gorgeously and lovingly directed by Stephen Gregory Smith, keeps this myth in mind. Another thing the play remembers is the dual nature of the blues themselves.
Born out of the struggles of the Southern black community, the blues is often as a sad, reflective genre. But the other half of its name is important. Rhythm and Blues, or R&B, hints to the duality of the music. It’s life and death. Joy and sorrow.
Which is exactly what this musical focuses on. Each of the five characters can be see through this lens. There’s Good Sister Dupree (Iyona Blake) who has lost her husband and finds herself dating his twin brother. There’s Dregster (Malcolm Lee) who always looked up to his twin brother but now yearns to marry his widow. Good Sister’s twins are the picture of this duality. Jaguar Dupree, Jr. (Michael Mainwaring) wants nothing more than to make money with his father’s gift, while his sister Glory Dupree (Shayla Simmons), after losing her sight, uses his gift to merely play the music.
That gift is a pair of twin guitars, carved from a tree. Said tree is beautifully constructed on stage, with long, spindly branches wrapped in Christmas lights and reaching out over the picnic table outside Good Sister’s Bessmer, Alabama house.
The deceased man whose legacy lives on as father, husband and twin brother is Jaguar Dupree, Sr., the most skillful blues guitarist the South has ever seen. Fittingly, he earned this title by playing against a shape-shifter who has given his soul in order to protect the music (and for a considerable amount of dark magical power). His name Marvell Thunder (RaMond Thomas), and the two had a shredding contest at the crossroads. For the first time, Thunder was defeated.
But that was then, and this is now. Thunder has returned, after tricking Jaguar, Jr. into a cutting contest in which he stole one of those magical guitars. The other belongs to the blind Shayla. Thunder has come for the guitar, but the strong-hearted Shayla (and her absolutely stunning dresses) steals his heart, brings his humanity to the surface. He has the power to restore her sight, to let her live a happy life. But to do so means losing that very power.
It’s a dark situation but that doesn’t stop these five from singing their ever-living hearts out. From the joyful blast of “This House is Built” (on Rhyhm and the Blues) to the heartbreaking soul-search of “Even When You Win, Sometimes You Lose,” every single song shines brighter than the stars on a muggy Alabama night.
Thunder Knocking on the Door
Closes May 26, 2013
Creative Cauldron at
ArtSpace Falls Church
410 South Maple Avenue
Falls Church, VA
2 hours, 30 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays at 8pm
But RaMond Thomas is a feat to behold, as he struggles through song to come to terms with the impossibility of enjoying both infinite magical power and the woman he’s so quickly falling for. As his evil façade begins to crack, Thomas expertly navigates the waters of clinging to a comfortable past and the excitement of risking everything.
Particular praise should be given to Zachary Dalton, the lighting designer. When Thunder, washed in a sharp white light, pearly teeth bared, muscles and veins pushing against his dark skin, sings “Hurt Somebody,” he is the picture of horror, of evil, of inhumanity. Which only serves to make his second act’s rise back into humanity, and a self-less rise at that, even more stunning.
The blues are the epitome of the old phrase, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Just because you sing doesn’t mean everything’s going to work out.
But it might make the dark times just a little brighter.
Thunder Knocking on the Door by Keith Glover . Music and Lyrics by Keb’ Mo’ and Anderson Edwards . Directed by Stephen Gregory Smith . Music Direction by Amy Conley . Scene and Costume Design by Margie Jervis . Lighting Design by Zachary Dalton . Sound Design by Jessica Baber . Musicians: Amy Conley (Keyboard), Rob Weaver (Lead Guitar), Meeghan Frame (Bass), Jim Hoffman (Drums), Alvin Smithson (Keyboard Sub) . Produced by Creative Cauldron . Reviewed by Travis M. Andrews