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The Devil Is in the Details

Legend has it Robert Johnson became a blues guitar master in an amazingly short time, hence the myth that he made a deal with the devil. Johnson didn't achieve fame during his lifetime, but his signature sound and lexicon of powerful tunes have lived on through the work of rock 'n' roll greats such as Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. He was a mysterious loner, loved and hated by women, revered by other musicians. In 1937, after Johnson had a brief fling with the owner of a bar, the woman's irate husband poisoned the bluesman with strychnine-laced whiskey.

M Ensemble's production of Bill Harris' Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil delves into this closing chapter of Johnson's brief life, following the same rough historical outline: Johnson (Ricardo Walker) arrives at Georgia's Colored Juke Joint sporting his fancy duds and his guitar. He and Georgia (Carey Hart) immediately warm up to each other, and while they slip off to be alone, Georgia's long-absent and embittered husband, Lem (Ray Lockhart), returns from a stint of hard labor and soon thereafter poisons Johnson. Into this mix Harris has added Kimbrough (Steve Schlam), a white professor from an elite girls' school who is on a half-crazed spiritual journey to find Johnson.

Harris has skillfully crafted a script steeped in rural Southern vernacular, literary allusions, tall tales, song lyrics, and folklore. Kimbrough is the mouthpiece for these literary allusions and myths. Despite Schlam's sometimes overzealous performance, his role never feels orchestrated, because the script is so organic. A beautiful example is Kimbrough's reference to Johnson as a black Orpheus: "A hero god from Greek mythology. The greatest poet-musician of his time.... He once descended into hell, and his music eased the suffering of the damned." These references offer contemporary audiences who may or may not be blues fans another historical -- and mythical -- context within which to appreciate Johnson's art.

This kind of insight gives the play its true punch. (The plot does not: A quick glimpse at the program reveals the circumstances of Johnson's death.) Harris' passionate, clever, and varied text offers the audience ample emotional and intellectual treasures. Unfortunately the performances of the main actors do not consistently live up to the demands of the script. They carry their roles without becoming -- much less transforming -- their characters.

The rakishly handsome Walker certainly looks his part. When he pulls his wide-brimmed hat low over one eye and sets his strong jaw, one senses the quiet intensity that Johnson must have possessed. But one listen to "Crossroad Blues" reveals Johnson's deep pain and passion, despite a shyness that compelled him to play with his back to the audience. None of these traits emerges from Walker's performance: He's sometimes sassy, sometimes brooding, but never truly convincing. The fact that he plays with his back turned seems to be the director's way of concealing the actor's inability to replicate Johnson's guitar licks convincingly.

As Lem, Lockhart stands out, showing more life and physicality in his much smaller role than Walker does in the lead. An outraged husband and man beaten down by a life of hard labor, which he describes as worse than slavery "... because at least they have a reason to keep a slave alive," Lem displays the kindling rage that one expects from a lead character.

Hart's Georgia occasionally lights up but tends to be bland, complacent, and wistful. As a black woman running her own business in the 1930s, Georgia as written offers numerous opportunities for Hart to explore the character's identity both as temptress and proprietress, but she never seems to get her teeth into the role. She and Walker, in particular, have all the sexual chemistry of George and Louise Jefferson -- without the humor.

Georgia's blind cohort, Stokes (Meshaun Arnold) has the knee-slapping, signifying, wide-grinning joke-telling that comes in handy -- especially when it comes to biting one-liners and comebacks. When Kimbrough declares that Johnson's music is far superior to any other "darky fun" he has heard, Stokes replies, "Seen one blossom, swear he invented spring." Both Arnold and Hart capitalize on the script's catch-me-if-you-can brand of humor when they sidestep Kimbrough's inquiry for a man named Robert Johnson by launching into a madcap discourse and tall-tale extravaganza about all the different names they've heard (Hambone, Barefoot, Shorty, et cetera). Stokes captivates the audience with sharp wit and a hilarious delivery in these moments, but his role is largely unrealized. Stokes is intended to be not just comic relief but a sage, a mediator between this world and the other side. The character merits more intensity and range than Arnold gives him.

It seems as if director Herman LeVern Jones is most comfortable with the script's more humorous parts. The jokes consistently hit home, but between the laughs lies a creeping ambiguity. When Kimbrough, Stokes, and Georgia share stage time, sometimes Kimbrough speaks and the others on stage freeze. Kimbrough often launches into weighty monologues as if they are Shakespearean soliloquies, while Georgia gazes into space, wiping down the bar, and Stokes sits and rocks, abstractly planted in his chair. Other times they respond to his presence, but their actions seem to have no real rhyme or reason. One gets the feeling that the director is not entirely certain what he wants these three characters to mean to one another. The presence of a white character creates an opportunity for the other players to reveal the ingenious language, signifying, and role-playing African-Americans created to keep their real life separate from the life the white man saw. Yet these characters rarely change when Kimbrough is on stage -- not a likely response for an unknown New Englander to receive upon walking into an all-black juke joint in the middle of Mississippi more than 60 years ago.

As for Kimbrough's speeches themselves, Schlam delivers these diatribes in such a quirky and overdone manner that the audience must pay more attention to his obtrusive acting technique than to revelations about his character. During their confrontation in the final scene, both Schlam and Walker manage to add a level of complexity to this already intriguing script. Their argument about Johnson's putative deal with the devil reaches a fever pitch, becoming a riddle of rhythm, madness, and reason as each man respectively allies himself with the literary and the legendary:

Kimbrough: "It's a metaphor."

Johnson: "Metaphor my ass, it's the hellhound, fool."

Such charged moments, though, are disappointingly rare. Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil is a perfect work for M Ensemble, a company that consistently selects smart and challenging plays. The play is worth seeing for its humor and content, but the performances in this production can't elevate it to anywhere near the level of its title character's greatness.

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Mia Leonin

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