“These men, who had to renounce the blues to be sanctified, who often sneered at preachers in their songs, were the ones who really believed in the devil; they feared the devil most because they knew him best. They understood, far better than preachers, why sex was man’s original sin, and they sang about little else.” Greil Marcus from “Mystery Train.”
Robert Leroy Johnson (1911-1938) was an educated city boy who continued school even after the family moved to a plantation. When his 16 year-old bride died in childbirth, Johnson was told the tragedy was divine punishment for his secular songs. He quit farming to pursue music full time.
One day, the iterant musician came across bluesman Son House and friends at a juke joint and asked to play with them. He was terrible. A year later, he returned and asked if he could sit in. The skill and imagination of the young man’s musicianship shocked those who had earlier mocked him. How could he have become that good that fast? House believed the artist must’ve gone to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil.
We meet Johnson, introduced as “a man who sings the blues like Joe Louis throws a punch,” performing “They’re Red Hot”: Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got’em for sale…Club audience is heard, but not seen. Lawrence Stallings sings and may play, but camera work allows superior guitarist Curtis Craig’s hands to come from elsewhere.
“I got a reason to celebrate today,” Johnson tells us. 1938, in an effort to introduce an integrated white audience to Negro music, A & R god John Hammond is mounting two Carnegie Hall concerts called From Spirituals to Swing. Johnson has been invited to play. Up until then, all his 29 short, 78rpm recordings were sold exclusively down south as “race music.” This would be a shot at the big time.
The performer requests liquor. A bottle is delivered to the stage. (Telling us the cap is partly off is an unnecessary tipoff.) “Me and the Devil Blues” follows: Me and the Devil, ooh/Was walkin’ side by side/And I’m going to beat my woman/ Until I get satisfied… “Y’all believe the crossroads story n’ I got some Mississippi bottom land to sell you with a guarantee it’s never gonna get wet. I don’t need no devil to be the best bluesman in the world…” Johnson says smoking and drinking.
Stallings has the phrasing, laconic, punctuated rhythm, and some howl (though not with Johnson’s wrench). He fluently segues from talk to melody. Camerawork grows blurry; the hero collapses. Three days of agony later, Johnson would die from whiskey laced with strychnine, having been poisoned by a jealous husband. Apparently a doctor was never sent for due to cost. The artist never made it to Carnegie.
Johnson opens his eyes in Hell. Satan reiterates their contract terms. The musician argues he’s only 27. “Being applauded in the Mississippi Delta doesn’t make you the best in the world. You jumped the gun,” he complains. “The blues don’t belong in Carnegie Hall. Blues is the pitiful folk music of a lost and forgotten people,” Satan retorts. (To my mind an unlikely opinion about music that illuminates everything bad, sad, and painful.)
The two agree to bring witnesses who will testify to Johnson’s worthiness or legal responsibility/blame (ambiguous). This, with a few intermittent musical numbers, constitutes the rest of the play. Stallings plays both Johnson’s stepfathers (his birth father took off). One, called by him, is sympathetic; the other, summoned by the Devil, says Johnson was “no good, lazy, and too hot blooded.” Friends, fellow musicians, John Hammond, even a love interest describe the musician from his/her point of view. We get a sense of his history.
This section needs editing. There are redundant observations, too many minor characters, and we might learn more about the social environment in which he was living. Additionally, “Love in Vain,” performed in narrative after his first wife’s death, is later revealed to have been written for the testifying Willie Mae Patton.
Numbers are well chosen. Listen carefully (or go to YouTube after) and you can hear how Johnson influenced the rock styles of Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton (all of whom acknowledge the debt). Hammond gifted Bob Dylan the bluesman’s complete works. He was blown away.
The Devil gives Johnson a cleverly conceived lady or the tiger choice and is surprised by the outcome (which is both nifty and well articulated). The dialogue bridge to “Terraplane Blues” – a good song full of raunchy double entendres having to do with car engines – is awkward. (Terraplane was a low priced modern sedan made by the Hudson Motor Car Company.)
There’s a good piece in here, put the play needs weeding. Johnson is an interesting subject both because of his influence on later musicians and the myth that surrounds him. Playwrights Steve H. Broadnax III and Charles Dumas have done some good character writing. Testimonies are better than the Devil’s dialogue, however. Satan lacks sharp intelligence and evil wit – a missed opportunity. Nor should Broadnax play him. His voice lacks distinction and credibility.
Lawrence Stallings is a better actor than bluesman, but if you’re unfamiliar with Johnson or Delta Blues, that won’t matter. Channeling is more important than imitation. Inhabiting the roster of characters, the deft actor offers a variation of vocal rhythm (speaking) and attitude that serves well.
James F. Pyne, Jr.’s Scenic Design is less Hell than stylish interior. It’s difficult to tell what Shon Causer’s lighting might be with less set distraction. Marla Jurglanis’ costumes are spot on.
Curtis Craig’s sound design is musically effective as are club voices. Hearing Johnson’s wife loudly breathe before she dies, however, is overplaying the hand.
Camerawork is far too fussy.
It’s clear this is a theater company to watch, one that boldly takes on intriguing material. Me and the Devil is certainly an introduction to a forgotten source of inspiration.
All photos Courtesy of Lantern Theater
Lantern Theater Company presents the world premiere of
Me and the Devil by Steve H. Broadnax III and Charles Dumas
Fi lmed June 2021 at St. Stephen’s Theater in Center City Philadelphia.
Songs by Robert Johnson
Music Performed by Curtis Craig
Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III
Robert Johnson and Others – Lawrence Stallings
Voice of the Devil – Steve H. Broadnax III
Streaming through October 17,2021
Lantern Theater Company produces plays that investigate and illuminate what is essential in the human spirit and the spirit of the times. We seek to be a vibrant, contributing member of our community, exposing audiences to great theater, inviting participation in dialogue and discussion, and engaging audience members about artistic and social issues.