The fate of Blues Music hits a resounding note in a new play
An upcoming play at new theater stage hits on all the essentials of blues music – the magical charm of its sound, its Mississippi Delta and fieldworker roots, its musical underside in spiritual communities, the myth of the crossroads, its nickname “devil’s music” and how British rockers drew inspiration from riches.
British playwright Stephen Jeffreys completed “I Just Stopped to See the Man” in 2000, and the play focuses on the humanity of those in its orbit. Salvation and sacrifice, redemption, reconciliation and temptation are the common threads in this character study of three people who must come to terms with their choices, their fears and the truth in their souls.
The play begins on February 2 and continues until February 13. Set in the Mississippi Delta of the 1970s, Jesse “The Man” Davidson, last of the Delta bluesmen, lives in a shotgun house at a rural crossroads. Legends attribute an evil chord to his talent; the musician himself is said to have died 14 years before the start of the piece.
Even Jesse’s life in obscurity, with its prospects of trouble on all sides, can’t stop a determined intruder from stopping to see him. Karl, a British rock star with a band touring the region, is determined to seek out the authentic source of the music he plays for a living, as well as to sanctify his soul and secure his future. Jesse’s daughter, Della, stands with these two men at a crossroads, weighing what their choices – and sharing the truth about hers – will cost her.
To Jesse, Mark G. Henderson finds a fascinating personality: famous, talented and used to the limelight, but now isolated from the recognition he once enjoyed. “A lot of times when I think of Jesse, I think of the concept of an Achilles heel,” said Henderson, a longtime professor of speech-language pathology/communication and acting at Jackson State University.
“With all great men, there is something in them that is their weakness, that could destroy them,” adds Henderson. “I always watch Jesse. Is it his love for the blues? He loves the blues so much he doesn’t want anyone else to play it. He feels like you should be allowed to sing the blues.
DeShawn White of New York, a Maryland native making her New Stage debut, has the nuanced role of Della, an activist and truth-teller. “She tells it like it is,” says White, “but at the same time she’s hiding and she’s not living her own truth. The arm wrestling that goes on inside her, I think, is really compelling.
As a larger-than-life blues-loving English rock star, Austin Hohnke, also from New York, is hit with everything Karl fears. “He’s afraid of being alone, even though he’s performing in front of such a big audience. He’s looking for recognition and needs to feel there’s some legitimacy in what he’s doing,” Hohnke says. “It’s this fear of being an impostor.”
Hohnke was last seen at New Stage playing Carl Perkins in “Million Dollar Quartet” an experience that gave him an excellent foundation and a springboard for this production, he says.
“We went to Sun (Studio)and we went to graceland, so we saw the adoption (of blues) in early rock ‘n’ roll. … There are a lot of parallels I could draw,” he says. “As far as legit blues exploration goes, this has been just a great opportunity to dive into it head-first.”
Few plays are about the blues without being musicals, notes Francine Thomas Reynolds, artistic director of the New Stage Theater who is also the director’s chair for this production. The play’s immersion in the culture, language, and impact of the blues, and the three strong characters that drive its story drew Reynolds to this rich drama.
“These are not stereotypes at all,” she says. “They are deep and multifaceted characters.”
“Everyone has a secret, and you find out what those secrets are. They are revealed throughout the play and how those secrets drive them,” Reynolds explains. “But on top of it all is this exploration of the blues. Who has the right to sing the blues? What’s the blues?
“I Just Stopped to See the Man” fits into the Mississippi play initiative with its setting, acknowledgment of the music’s roots, and the way Mississippi informs Jesse’s character.
“There’s a universality to their desires — to keep secrets, to desire relevance and legitimacy,” Reynolds says. “They could be anywhere, really, but it adds so much life, it’s a Delta blues player.”
The play includes music – guitar and vocals – “but the idea is to get someone to sing and play the blues,” Reynolds points out.
Mentions of real blues artists, coded messages in the song, the strength and appeal of the black church, the political context of race relations and more give the piece an air of authenticity.
“The character of Jesse is kind of a mix of all these blues singers who are from Mississippi or who are from the South,” Henderson says, and the playwright is right. “I think it speaks pretty well to their thought process – how they felt or how they thought, being a blues singer in America against a backdrop of white supremacy.”
“Sometimes we see people who are famous or in the limelight, and you see their glory, and you don’t realize they still have a story,” adds Henderson. “There are certain things that they have dealt with that have probably been a big part of their success because they have been able, like in the character of Jesse, to overcome the status quo to leave the fields of cotton, do some jumping. And, he was able to use those experiences in his music.
That too should connect directly with the audience here, he says. “Any Mississippian in this audience, if they haven’t been through it, I guarantee you, it’s not even six degrees of separation, it’s two degrees of separation from someone they know who has a family member who’s been through everything we’re talking about in this scenario.
“I Just Stopped To See The Man” runs from February 2-13 at the New Stage Theater (1100 Carlisle St.) in Jackson. Sessions are at 7:30 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. General admission is $30, with discounts available for students, seniors, military, and groups. Attendees can purchase tickets at the theater box office, by phone at 601-948-3531 or online at newstagetheatre.com.
The fully vaccinated audience performances are on February 2, February 4, February 6, February 8, February 10 and February 12, with proof of vaccination required, including for all children. A socially distanced performance will take place on February 9. A pay what you can performance will take place on February 3rd. works of HC Porterit is “Blues @ Home: Living Legends of Mississippi Blues” The series will be on display in the theater’s Hewes Room throughout the show, and Porter will be on hand to share his thoughts on the project at 6:45 p.m. on February 10, ahead of that evening’s performance.