Saturday, March 19, 2022

City Theater Company Celebrates a World Premiere and Honors a Legendary Bluesman

By Mike Logothetis
Theater reviewer Mike Logothetis grew up in North Wilmington, performing in school and local theater productions. He lives in Newark, but you can find him wherever the arts are good.

City Theater Company (CTC) returns to the Wings Black Box during its residency at The Delaware Contemporary (TDC) with the World Premiere of Blues In My Soul: The Legend and Legacy of Lonnie Johnson, a new play by David Robson.

Playwright Robson admits that “...Blues In My Soul has been a labor of love for me – a chance to grapple with past wrongs and find a place of connection and community through music.”

Joe Beckett as Lonnie and Righteous Jolly as Chris in Blues In My Soul. 
Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.
Based on a true story, Blues In My Soul reimagines a fateful meeting between guitar legend Lonnie Johnson and music historian Chris Albertson. In 1959, Johnson was working a low-wage job at a Philadelphia hotel, his past long forgotten. When Johnson is identified and engaged by Albertson, the two men start to discuss issues of authenticity, injustice, and legacy as they work their way through a catalog of great blues tunes – performed here with the blessing of the Johnson estate. It’s obvious that Johnson – a musician who influenced the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, T-Bone Walker, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, B.B. King, and Eric Clapton – is wary of a potential return to the industry that exploited and segregated his work before casting him aside.

Blues In My Soul features CTC alumni Righteous Jolly (Chris) and Christopher Banker (Irving), while musician Joe Beckett (Lonnie) makes his CTC debut…and what a debut! Although not much is known about Lonnie Johnson’s personality and demeanor, Beckett gives a realistic portrayal of a man who’s weary of where his former talents led him in life.

After a chance meeting, Beckett was informed by Jolly that he was the perfect person to portray Johnson in this production. Beckett agreed to audition and ended up landing the gig.

“That’s when my nerves went through the roof because I’d never acted before. They sent the script and it’s a two-man play, so it’s just me and Righteous through the whole play,” said Beckett. “Again, I have no experience whatsoever.”

Some of those nerves matter on stage and some don’t. Beckett’s and Jolly’s characters verbally spar, but they end up making beautiful music together. And that’s what this show is about: Music. Specifically, The Blues. Playwright Robson thankfully included over a dozen abridged songs by Johnson so the audience can appreciate the talents of the legendary bluesman.

But to really experience The Blues, the performer has to dig down and bring the music up with him through his instrument and voice. In that realm, Beckett delivers wholeheartedly. With songs like “See See Rider” and the titular “Blues In My Soul,” we see both Johnson’s and Beckett’s significant talents.

Jolly is no slouch either as the idolizing Chris, a dedicated DJ driving to put The Blues he loves on the Philadelphia airwaves. Chris is a devotee of Lonnie and is overjoyed to play music for and with his hero as he argues his case to share Johnson’s musical legacy with the world. Jolly shows his chops playing “Tomorrow Night” and Beautiful But Dumb” for Beckett’s Johnson. “Two-Tone Stomp” and “Blues For Chris” are standout Beckett/Jolly duets which capture the true joy of complementary performance.

But while the music soars, the dialog lost me at points. Perhaps it was opening night jitters or the difficulty in compressing a man’s life and career into verbal vignettes between songs, but a little tightening up would improve the flow of the show.

By no means should that minor script detail stop you from making time to see this production. Director Joe Trainor puts his two principal actors front and center, but makes sure the music is the real the star. While Lonnie laments that the music industry is a contest he “can’t seem to win,” this play is definitely a winner.

As Beckett said in an interview with the Lower Bucks Times: “I hope what people get out of this show is that music is just music. Music brings people together.” Amen.

Playwright David Robson.
Photo by Sonja Robson.
Artistic Director Kerry Kristine McElrone says, “Blues In My Soul came along at exactly the right time for CTC. We have been lucky to work with David throughout our history. …The incredible true story of this encounter between Lonnie and Chris was instrumental in creating a ‘second act’ for one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century. This is a tale about the need for connection and the impact that art – in this case, music – can have on individuals who on the surface seem to have nothing in common, yet find community in each other through a beloved art form. ...And the process of making this play ready for an appreciative audience was very in line with our commitment to new work and involving the creator in that process.”

Robson echoes that sentiment: “As an artistic partner, CTC can’t be beat. As a long-time supporter of my work, their creative team has been instrumental in helping me nudge the play forward by asking the right questions and encouraging my efforts to hone the piece. Their belief in this story honors my work and the life of the great Lonnie Johnson.”

Blues In My Soul runs for only four performances through next Saturday (March 18, 19, 25, and 26). Curtain is at 8:00pm, and the show lasts just under 90 minutes. City Theater Company’s new home at The Delaware Contemporary is located at 200 South Madison, Wilmington, DE 19801. 

Tickets ($30-40) can be purchased at the box office or online. Special ticket pricing is available for military personnel and students. Visit city-theater.org for more details and COVID-19 protocols/policies.

Come share in the magic of rediscovered music. As Lonnie Johnson would say about The Blues: “You can have ‘em, but you can’t own ‘em.”

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