Robert Jones finds the rhythm of the words with his body as he moves across the stage. No, he’s not singing some classic 12-bar blues; he’s acting out the last hours on earth of blues legend Robert Johnson:
So I tell Willie Brown, “I’m going to take my guitar and go down to the crossroads, man, see what old Satan got to say.” And old Willie say he would go but there was this old juicy gal had finally said what he wanted to hear. And since he could run into old Satan anytime, but this might be his only shot at this big-legged brownskin, he was going let me go ahead on by myself. Well, that was all right ’cause I’d been alone like that most of my life.
This dialogue, floating at the threshold between poetry and speech, is from Detroit playwright Bill Harris’ Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, the mysterious, musical — and biting — play that starts a two-week run this Friday at Wayne State University’s Hilberry Theatre. In the lore of the blues, a genre with more than its share of tall tales, Johnson’s reputed deal with the devil, wherein he exchanged his soul for a heap of musical genius, is the quintessential tall tale.
But as far as productions go, Robert Johnson has been one of Harris’ local orphans — one of relatively few of his plays that have not been done in his hometown. Harris has seen his truth-seeking, lyrical dramas produced in New York City (among them, Stories about the Good Old Days, which starred Abbey Lincoln, and Goodbye Ain’t Gone, which featured Denzel Washington) and so many regional productions of his plays that he tends to lose track of where and when. But Robert Johnson took eight years to get produced in the town where it was written, having premiered in New York at the New Federal Theatre in March 1993. And after half a dozen stagings — most of them without the author present — in Atlanta, Buffalo, Memphis, etc., this sensuous deconstruction of an American myth is finally where we can see it.
“It’s been a long time coming,” laughs Harris. “Part of the difficulty is finding somebody to play that character, because it has to be somebody who can play the blues.”
And that would be Robert Jones, a blues musician himself and well-known to WDET-FM 101.9 audiences as the host of “Blues From the Lowlands,” Saturdays from 10 a.m.-noon.
Says Harris, “One of the reasons that I wanted to do this was because of the possibility of working with Robert Jones. There’s something about Robert that just knocks me out. He’s a blues scholar — he knows the music — and also he’s a really good musician. He and I have had these points where we just came and bounced off each other for a minute. I don’t know him that well, but I do know that there’s not a lot of Robert Joneses around. Having that sense, I didn’t worry that much about having a nonactor doing this part, ’cause I knew he knew what it was about … his instincts are just incredible.”
The demands on the actors — in a play with only five characters, piano-accompanied narration and original Robert Johnson blues numbers played onstage by the lead — can be formidable. Everybody in the strong cast (which includes Sandra Aldridge, Council Cargle and Blair Franklin) is in the spotlight a whole lot of the time and the interplay between Johnson and Kimbrough, the white folklorist who speaks in iambic pentameter (acted by Detroit veteran Bill Boswell), hints at the archetypal conflicts of ancient drama.
Says Jones, “It’s really sort of enlightening to spend this much time — even though I know some of this is fictional and some of it’s mythical — with one of the major personalities of the blues, a guy who’s already been shrouded in mystery for all this time and then you try to get into his head, to figure and guess and try to surmise what was really going on.”
Harris’ purpose in Robert Johnson, in fact, continues his effort to rethink historical experience: “Every society has its indelible and embedded myths, and they’re necessary to that society. One of the things that I’ve wanted to do is raise discussion about these myths as they apply to African-Americans, particularly African-American men. The whole idea of Robert Johnson having to sell his soul in order to be able to play the way he did … that’s where I start … and then examine the why of the myth, rather than just it itself. Why does America need to believe that?”
As Harris changes the filter through which we illuminate a certain uncanny crossroads on blues’ long and winding highway, he thinks of the men who’ve been silenced into the background.
“One of my jobs, as an African-American male who writes, is to give voice to those characters. … It seems to me that that’s one of the voices that we hear least in America … what black men have to say.”
And for a relatively inexperienced actor (though one steeped in the music saturating this play), Jones seems to comprehend Harris’ purpose quite clearly:
“Every time we run through this, I learn something new. I’ve read that script I don’t know how many times now … it’s like, in the morning you’re shaving and you’re trying to think about, ‘OK, I’m learning this line now,” and then all of a sudden something happens and you realize it means more than just A — it also means B and C. There’s all kind of wonderful symbolism and imagery in his lines … this whole piece has got music all the way through it, whether you’re actually playing it or whether it’s the rhythm or whether it’s the way that Robert Johnson will say a certain thing, that it’ll just be poetic.”
Like a constellation in the sky, the five characters of Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil seem to cast the revealing aura of their interactions on each other endlessly. Under the direction of Edward G. Smith of WSU’s Black Theatre Program, they deliver their passionate gestures and songlike lines as if dancing through our minds, running up to the brink of a misconception and leaping across to a new understanding.
It’s the blues as mental ballet, a play that’ll light up the midnight of your imagination like a ring of fire, though you can keep your soul when you go home.George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at email@example.com