The power of the blues is undeniable. Hearing the music-s raw emotions cut through the scratches and hisses of old recordings immediately conjures up feelings and images of a distinct time and place. The legendary figures and rich history of this uniquely American artform are an understandable temptation to writers, but just as capturing the blues on record was a challenge for sound engineers in the 1920-s, capturing the blues in words may be an even tougher challenge today.
British playwright Stephen Jeffreys attempts this in his 2001 play I JUST STOPPED BY TO SEE THE MAN. Jeffreys is clearly intoxicated with the blues, and appears to be well versed in the music-s free structure, plaintive lyrics, and most of all: its colorful, almost mythical, lore. But as Jesse, the play-s main character makes clear: "In order to sing the blues, you got to know the blues" In order to sing the blues, you got to have the blues." Jeffreys and the people at the Geffen Playhouse certainly know the blues, and they may even have the blues, but they haven-t been able to stage the blues, as the music becomes only background score to a crude, rather conventional dramatic scenario.
The one genuine pleasure this play affords is the chance to see Clarence Williams III in the central role as Jesse "The Man" Davidson. Williams, a familiar character actor from films, is perhaps best known for playing Linc in the the television series THE MOD SQUAD, but he started his career on stage and his performance at the Geffen is a welcome return to the theater. Williams- gravely voice combined with his wild, gray hair gives him instant credibility and if it weren-t for the banality of many of his lines, one could forget he was "acting" at all.
Sadly that is not the case with Donovan Leitch, who plays a breezy British Rock Star who stops by Jesse-s home in an attempt to lure him to playing at his Stadium Concert. Mr. Leitch, the son of folk singer Donovan, would seem to be a good fit for the role, given his pop-music pedigree but just as he was unconvincing as a glam-rocker during his stint in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, he is unpersuasive here as a Mick Jagger clone. Granted, Leitch is given rotten lines like "I love guitars, they-re like girls to me," but his presence fails to create the illusion that he could have entranced thousands of rock fans, let alone this one blues musician.
The actors do make the most of the play-s clever lines, of which there are quite a few; but blues is about honesty, not cleverness. The rudimentary dramatic techniques (yes, a suitcase with $5,000 cash is needed to heighten the tension) and the shallow characterizations make the play seem like little more than a lackluster VH-1 "Behind the Music" special. I JUST STOPPED BY TO SEE THE MAN may be a temptation for both theater and music fans, but simply listening to an authentic blues record evokes without the help of actors, lights, or sets the world of the Mississippi Delta in a much more direct, profound fashion.
I JUST STOPPED BY TO SEE THE MAN runs at the Geffen Theater through October 19th.
This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.