The Review: The York Theatre Company’s Lonesome Blues
In Lonesome Blue, as directed by Katherine Owens at The York Theatre Company, attempts to dive into the myth and mystery surrounding the true and fascinating story of blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929). Born blind, Jefferson found release singing his “Match Box Blues” songs on a street corner in Dallas Texas. His “Broke and Hungry Blues” reflect his deepest emotions, triggering an empathetic response of shared pain and connection. His “Rabbit Foot Blues” gave him the luck to be discovered on that very street corner out front of a barber shop, leading his “Shuckin’ Sugar Blues” to the creation of more than 80 records over the next four years. This man, who definitely has “Got the Blues” became one the most prolific and influential performers of his generation propelling the growth of rhythm and blues, soul, doo-wop, rap, and hip-hop forward in a most spectacular way.
The one man showpiece, written by Alan Govenor and Akin Babatundé after extended research, tries to dive into the deep inner life and psyche of this powerful singer and song writer. Their writing attempts to channel the spirits of men and women alike who were a part of this singer’s journey from street to recording studio. Accompanied by the amazing David Weiss on guitar, Babatundé plays the legendary singer, along with more than ten other roles, as he sits on the sidewalk waiting for a ride on the day of his death, December 19, 1929, in Chicago. Utlizing a very long list of songs and monologues, he parcels out a meandering tale of inspiration and the ascendance of Blind Lemon Jefferson with passion and a whole lot of sweat and tears. It’s obvious from the list of musical numbers, Jefferson’s influence is strong, but unfortunately, the storytelling in this creation is a tad convoluted, rarely finding its spirit and the internalized beat. The singing wanders around from good to impressive but never hitting that emotional high we keep waiting for. Oddly enough, Babatundé is more engaging when he takes on the voice and mannerisms of the ladies who came into his life. He seems to connect to their internal life more clearly, as the rest of the time, the threads of Jefferson don’t come together in a compelling narrative.
The guitar playing is powerful, and the backdrop by scenic designer James Morgan, with costumes by Gelacio Eric Gibson, lighting by Steve Woods and sound design by Jason Johnson-Spinos, takes us to a very specific time and place, but the characterization doesn’t do the trick of pulling us in. It did inspire me to want to read more and look into this slice of musical history that I wasn’t aware of, but mainly because the details and the transformative spirit were more troubling and vague than evocative. Blind Lemon Jefferson is considered by many as a musical icon in the development of American popular music influencing such various artists such as Lead Belly, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles, but this one man show fails to establish his power or his story solidly enough to do the man justice. Although it did inspire me to want to know more and listen to his “Chritmas Eve Blues“.