Of blues and redemption
By Jim Trageser
Ostensibly about blues, cultural authenticity and race, at its heart "I Just Stopped By to See the Man" (now appearing at the Old Globe) is really about redemption and hope.
Set in the mid-1970s in the northern reaches of the Mississippi Delta, the play revolves around fictional bluesman Jesse Davidson. A contemporary of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and other first-generation acoustic bluesmen from the Delta, Davidson has been hiding out in his old haunts since an automobile crash involving his car 14 years earlier convinced authorities that he was dead.
Jesse's politicized daughter, Della, has moved back and is living with him seemingly out of a desire to reconcile a strained relationship and get to know him better.
Into this boring but stable scenario comes Karl a rock star whose million-selling albums are still influenced by the blues Karl heard growing up in England. Specifically the music of Jesse, whom Karl suspects might still be alive.
Of the three characters, Karl has the most straight-forward motivations. After a decade on the road, his bandmates are tired of touring, tired of the blues. They're packing it in after the next concert, leaving Karl at a career crossroads. Karl is upfront about his presence: He needs Jesse to rejuvenate his own career.
As Karl wheedles, bribes and begs Jesse to join him on-stage in a well-orchestrated "comeback," the well-hidden secrets and very human frailties of both Jesse and Della begin to present themselves.
Della is the most interesting character, and Tracey A. Leigh's nuanced portrayal only adds to the anguish Della must go through as she not only confronts her painful past, but is forced to share it with her father.
Jesse has his own skeletons, some of which he's hidden not only from his public and his daughter, but has managed to avoid facing up to himself. Henry Afro-Bradley's portrayal of Jesse is the equal of Leigh's Della: In his knowing hands, Jesse is a deeply complex man, one whose wisdom has been hard-earned.
Manoel Felciano's Karl is the least fleshed-out character. Karl is nothing like the early British blues artists he is supposed to represent. Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Kim Simmons those early Brit blueshounds were unfailingly serious; Manoel Felciano's portrayal of Karl is of a fun-loving prankster, closer to Davey Jones of the Monkees or maybe Rod Stewart than any of the serious blues musicians from that era.
Director Seret Scott has worked quite a bit of live music into this production, and given that Afro-Bradley is himself a working blues musician in addition to actor, most of the musical scenes work quite well. Felciano holds his own in these scenes, especially in capturing the rock ‘n' roll flourishes of that era. And Leigh shows fine form in adding a few vocal passages.
Robert Mark Morgan's set design has an authentically rustic appearance to it; rough-hewn yet warm. Charlotte Devaux's costumes capture both the everyday feel of the mid-'70s and the over-the-top rock star excess of that time.
In the end, though, what is most rewarding about this production is that Scott's direction manages to relegate the difficult questions of race and American society to the secondary position they ultimately inhabit in any human being's heart and soul. While racism has certainly scarred Jesse and Della, ultimately their predicaments are of their own making forcing each to confront their own human frailties and shortcomings.
Copyright © Turbula.net