In 2012, Ruth P. Watson’s novel Blackberry Days of Summer became a critical darling. The story is an exciting historical whodunit, where a young black man is murdered at the beginning of the 20th Century, and even though suspects abound, no one is trying too hard to find his killer.
The show was adapted into a musical by Watson and Thomas W. Jones II, and is currently staging its world premiere at MetroStage as Blackberry Daze.
The circumstances that led to the musical include a great bit of luck and happenstance. Jones was running a theater in Atlanta and Watson would often stop in to see productions. The two met once, exchanged numbers and pleasantries, but never talked seriously about working together.
“An actress friend of mine had read the book and recommended that she get in touch with me because she had adapted it into a screenplay but was interested in seeing it as a play,” Jones says. “Months went by and I never heard from her or saw the book, but I knew I had her number in my phone, so I called her and she sent the book, and a week later, I was like, ‘Let’s do this.”
Watson was almost immediately on board.
“I knew of Tom and his work and had wanted to work with him silently for years,” she says. “He read the book and loved it and the collaboration began.”
Watson admits she never even considered it as a musical, and was working towards creating a film adaption, having the screenplay already written.
“I was open to whatever God blessed it with,” she says. “Adapting it for the stage made sense from the very beginning, even though I had envisioned it as a film.”
For his part, Jones was more interested in adapting the book than the screenplay.
“It’s really a great read. I like the novel more because I lived the language and storytelling and I wanted to create a piece that preserved that storytelling,” he says. “I went and wrote 12 songs with William Knowles and we created a musical text that tied the story together to some degree.”
Their first “official” work meeting had them comparing 3×5 index cards that both had prepared with different ideas for scenes. Jones had 32 of them, and Watson her own set, and the two arranged and rearranged them deciding on the direction of the story.
“It was a lot about the compression of the characters and what we needed to do to tell the story the right way,” Jones says. “Once that was done, I went away and wrote. I wanted to do with her, what George Wolfe did with Zora Neale in Spunk, at least stylistically do the same thing—allowing the narrative voice to become part of the subtext. I wanted a sense of all the voices involved. When I finished it, she said ‘yes’ and we went forward.”
Jones didn’t make any drastic changes, adding very little additional writing to the scenes. He did however co-create the songs, which is where the transitions and additional story came in.
“I would say 98 percent of spoken text came from the book and she was really reading an edited version with the songs serving as an extension of ideas for the characters’ lives,” he says. “When she was reading, she was reading her language, not just my interpretation. It maintained the integrity and the way we told the story.”
closes October 9, 2016
Details and tickets
The collaboration went smoothly with both parties pretty much in the same frame of mind as to what needed to be done. Jones works fast and Watson is more diligent and focused, and they worked well together.
“We are both very creative, so the mutual respect was always there. I think the secret is to work with someone with the same degree of passion for the arts and to make reasonable goals and work hard towards them,” Watson says. “I can’t think of any area where we differed.”
The show details a small Virginia town as “The Great War” is coming to an end, that is rocked by secrets and seduction as Herman Camm, a provocative gambler, weaves his magic on the lives of three unsuspecting women, Mae Lou and her daughter Carrie, and Pearl, a blues singer at the local juke joint.
“It’s a piece for women, through the lens of a young African American woman, and I wanted to make sure that somehow the people were blown away by it,” Jones says. “This romance/murder mystery/ who done it? is set at the beginning of early 20th century yet somehow still resonates with a contemporary audience.”
Watson describes the show as being “historical, romantic, humanistic, bluesy and jazzy. It is about redemption and all the emotions of life.”
MetroStage’s intimate space appealed to both creators.
“I’ve had a strong relationship with the theater and what’s lovely is the novel is set in Virginia and DC so it’s nice that the environment is fairly close to the theater,” Jones says. “There’s a family of artists we have developed over the last 10-12 years, and I knew it was the kind of actors we needed for this piece. Even the new people we found were because of relationships we had.”
“I hope audiences walk away with a sense of freedom, knowing it is alright to live. It is smart, entertaining, musical and enlightening,” Watson says. “It shoots to the core of the heart. And, it is relative to you, or someone you know. It is simply fantastic, even if I say so myself. It is Broadway bound.”