Tricked by the Script

Uneven play bedevils Black Rep's Robert Johnson

Combine the blind seer of Greek tragedy with the remarkably contrasting language of Shakespeare and African-American storytelling. Add a protagonist, Robert Johnson, with the tragic flaw of pride, which leads him, like Oedipus, to his demise. Stir in a death reminiscent of Goneril's poisoning of Regan in King Lear and a comic antagonist who uses language out of context like an overly educated Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing. In Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, Bill Harris echoes great playwrights but is not successful in actually creating his own play. Fortunately, the actors' excellent work makes the production, by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, enjoyable in spite of the script's flaws; the performers, like the players in Hamlet, manage to somehow expose truth in the midst of confusion.

The strained coupling of Shakespeare (the white Western epitome of art and culture) and Robert Johnson's blues is embodied in the character of Kimbrough, an English professor obsessed with Johnson's music and lyrics, who has spent the summer of 1938 searching for the elusive bluesman. John Contini, as Kimbrough, ventures into Georgia Mayberry's Colored Jook Joint (where, unbeknownst to him, Johnson is sleeping upstairs) and interrogates Georgia and blind piano player Stokes about Johnson's whereabouts. Their natural suspicion of a white man doggedly seeking a black man leads them to comic stories meant to divert him from his quest, but Kimbrough is too stubborn to quit. Contini bravely delivers his speeches, often written in iambic pentameter, but he can't get past Harris' unwieldy dialogue and vocabulary. Kimbrough's ignorant racism and disbelief about Johnson's abilities are meant to be the main point of conflict in the play, but because Kimbrough is written as such a buffoon, his ultimate confrontation with Johnson lacks danger or depth.

The Robert Johnson legend is that he sold his soul to the devil for his amazing ability to play the guitar. Ron Himes plays Johnson, fresh from success, excellently dressed in a blue suit and red shoes, high on life. His first encounter with Georgia, played by the versatile Linda Kennedy, is full of sexual tension. "You by yourself?" she asks. "Ain't I enough?" he replies. Their steamy scenes are enjoyable to watch, but the subdued Himes saves most of his energy for his final speech about how he "tricked the devil." This tour-de-force monologue is a delight, but it's followed by what is supposed to be an equally dramatic monologue by Kimbrough that falls flat. We don't care enough about Kimbrough to sympathize with his guilt and confusion, and the zest of Johnson's story fizzles in Kimbrough's avalanche of words.

The highlights of the production are Kennedy's Georgia and Grenoldo Frazier's Stokes. The blind Stokes functions as our storyteller. He introduces the characters, underscores scenes and transitions with music and has consistently delightful stage presence. When he and Kennedy launch into comic banter about people's names, the words sizzle and the Jook Joint rocks. Harris' best writing is in these short stories -- the humor and details are compelling. But these tangential tales don't give the play the action that it lacks. Theater should show, not tell -- for example, we learn more about Johnson's uneasiness by seeing his fitful sleeping and nervous leg-scratching than from his speeches. Georgia's character is illustrated in Kennedy's precise choices of when to swing her hips and how she kicks the door open; Stokes' intentions are revealed in his constantly quivering fingers. When given room to breathe and move as the characters, the actors create exciting interactions -- but the unwieldy text often turns believable exchanges into obviously-scripted dialogue.

Erik Kilpatrick plays Georgia's estranged husband, Lem, whose rivalry with Johnson over Georgia is the one time in the play when characters' motivations are clear. The fact that Lem just happens to have a bottle of poison in his shirt pocket is pretty unbelievable, as is the long period of time between when Johnson consumes the poison and when he suddenly dies. Johnson's death and Kimbrough's response of perpetuating the myth that Johnson sold his soul to the devil are an unsatisfactory end to a frustrating play. Harris uses the theatrical convention of "asides" to stop the action and have characters speak directly to the audience. Interesting at first, the freeze-frame style is quickly overused, making the rhythm of the production choppy and predictable.

That almost none of Johnson's music is used is also disappointing. Kimbrough and Georgia both talk about how Johnson's blues "touched something deep inside." It's sad that a play about such powerful music couldn't touch us in the same way.