Blues So Bad
Thunder Knocking on the Door
It was a strange moment: During a number in Thunder Knocking on the Door, the shapeshifting antihero jumped up on a kitchen table with his electric guitar and broke into a blues riff, slowly turning in a circle and grinding out an orbit with his hips. We all got a really good look at his ass, packed into tight white pants, as he dry-humped his instrument downstage-center.
It was odd because, for one thing, open displays of sexuality are rare on the Guthrie stage. And that made me wonder: What did the white audience members see up there on that table? All their stereotypes of the black man as a sexual animal, a supernatural force of musical, sexual, and physical superiority? It wouldn't surprise me. At the same time, was it kind of joyous to see an African American man doing his thing, having fun with his body onstage at the Guthrie--that bastion of Euro-American culture and values? Absolutely.
I noticed at song's end that the white people in the audience were clapping loudest; the five people in the row in front of me, all black, kept their hands in their laps. I can't presume to speak for them, but I can think of a whole lot of reasons why they might not have wanted to clap along with the white folks. We are not so very far from the era of minstrelsy that African American artists can always feel safe from white people's misinterpretations. Below the stereotype, eroticism is indeed hugely important to the blues, especially blues dance, and ethnomusicologists have even traced specific dance moves back to African rituals celebrating sex, fertility, and the Earth. But what do white people know about any of that?
In spite of all this sticky mess--or, maybe, because of it--it's essential that the Guthrie continues to present works by and for African Americans and other "minorities" if it wants to become a true voice for the whole community. (And it wouldn't kill them to use a female playwright once in a while either.) Keith Glover's Thunder Knocking on the Door, directed by Marion McClinton, is a good candidate: Rather than presenting African American music and dance as mere entertainment, cut off from their cultural contexts and symbolic meanings, Thunder presents a pretty holistic worldview in which the blues are part of everyday life and function as a way for one generation to communicate values to the next.
The plot is a beautiful collection of blues mythology and magic realism: A shapeshifter bluesman, Marvell Thunder (Eric Riley), comes to town and challenges a twin brother and sister to a "cuttin' contest," a musical duel. Thunder is a serious badass, with creepy reflective-blue eyes; he's the fierce protector of the spirit of the blues. But Thunder has a score to settle with this family: Their now-dead father once beat him in a contest down by the crossroads, and unless he can beat these two, he's doomed to turn to stone. The girl, Glory (Lovette George), is blind; Thunder temporarily restores her sight, and promises that if she wins, she'll get to keep it.
Riley is menacing and seductive as Thunder; Robert Barry Fleming (who plays Jaguar Jr., Glory's brother) has his best moment during his first number ("Big Money"), when he flaunts spangled shades of Prince. Cheryl Alexander is especially strong as the mother, stealing the show near the end with a solo ballad. But George's singing is more cut out for Rodgers and Hammerstein than Keb' Mo' (she was in the Broadway cast of Carousel), and her attempt at a Southern accent is heavy-handed. The set (by Neil Patel) may give the best performance of all: It's gorgeous and evocative, especially the huge scrim covering the proscenium, painted with two earth-toned figures. Skinny trees--and a solar system of planets hanging behind them--add to the vaguely ghostly atmosphere.
The problem is, almost nothing happens in this play until the very end. It's as if the plot is stuck in mire and we're watching the actors trying to pull it out for two hours. There's an awful lot of talk and an awful lot of song, but the songs (mostly written by Keb' Mo') aren't particularly catchy, and don't seem much more bluesy than your average rock & roll tune. The lyrics are weak ("Big money on the radio/Big money on the color TV/Big money from left to right/Big money all day and all night"). Blues lyrics may be simple, but they don't have to be simple-minded. Meanwhile, the live band is shoved way upstage, behind a scrim that seriously muffles its sound; even at that, the actors still wear those awful body mics that inevitably distort the sound and draw attention to themselves.
The final showdown, which should be a harrowing, sexually charged moment, is nothing more than a fun little exercise. In fact, there's very little here to surprise, frighten, or move us, to make us want to dance or cry. (In fact, in the first act I spotted someone passed out in the front row.) And so we end up feeling as if we just ate a meal made with almost all the right ingredients, but in all the wrong proportions, served out of order. If it's the blues you want, you'd do better to stay home and turn on some Leadbelly. This show is a pale ghost of the music it's meant to celebrate.
Thunder Knocking on the Door plays at the Guthrie through March 28; call 377-2224.
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