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Lead in the Belly 

When Huddie Ledbetter first arrived in New York in 1935, he was blazoned in the Herald Tribune as "a powerful, knife-toting Negro, who has killed one man and seriously wounded another ... (who is) ... here to do a few tunes between homicides."

Some of the details in the lurid account (which, unintentionally, helped launch Leadbelly's legend and career) were true. He did sing himself to a pardon from a nearly expired sentence for murder in Texas. And he did spend more than a decade behind bars in various prisons, all for violent offenses.

In fact, it was in Angola that he caught the eye and ear of Alan Lomax, a pioneering musicologist who was traveling through the South recording folk artists. By the time Lomax was able to take Leadbelly to New York, however, the craze for country blues had run its course. Leadbelly never had large-scale commercial success. He lived mostly on odd jobs and welfare. In 1949, he died penniless, though venerated by a select public of enthusiasts. Ironically, one year later, his signature tune "Goodnight, Irene" (sung by the Weavers) hit No. 1 nationally.

Even this thumbnail biography gives a hint of what a complex, turbulent, larger-than-life figure Leadbelly was. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the script (by Useni Eugene Perkins) for Goodnight, Irene, currently on the boards at the Anthony Bean Community Theater.

This is a great shame, considering the richness of the real story and the remarkable presence of a genuine blues singer in the lead role. When three-time Grammy winner Chris Thomas King plays and sings as Leadbelly, we are his -- especially when he is free to make contact with the audience, as in the Carnegie concert sequence. King easily reveals Leadbelly's simple honesty, down-home lyricism and relentless, if somewhat vague, ambition. Could he also communicate the murky, explosive side of Leadbelly? With this one-dimensional script, there's no way to know.

The aspect of Leadbelly's life that takes center stage, albeit in an oblique fashion, is the troubled, symbiotic relationship between academic white musicologist and impoverished black folk artist.

The play takes place during a single night in the waiting room of a public hospital in New York in 1949. Leadbelly is dying. An insecure, pompous, Harvard-educated, African-American journalist, who has been assigned to do a story on what he disdainfully refers to as "some Negro blues singer," tries to get the night nurse (also an African American) to let him into the ICU. After some antagonism between the journalist (Tory Andrus) and the nurse (Ramona Monique Ussin), an aging white musicologist (Perry Willis) arrives, also wanting to see Leadbelly. The white man, who holds Leadbelly in awe for his artistic achievement, has driven all the way from Texas.

The reporter asks the professor to fill him in on Leadbelly's life story. The scenes now alternate between the waiting room and various locations of a flashback narrative involving Leadbelly, his childhood sweetheart and end-of-life spouse Martha (Micheale-Nicole), a homeboy buddy (Derrick Joseph Deal) and a penitentiary cellmate (John Sims). Between these two stage worlds, there is a sort of limbo, a shadow box in which a spirited Eric Johnson appears as the singing spirit of Leadbelly.

We never meet musicologist Lomax in Leadbelly's life narrative. The conflicts that eventually erupted between Leadbelly and his discoverer/manager are transferred to the black reporter and the white professor. However, while Lomax and Leadbelly were linked by crucial and meaningful bonds, the reporter and professor have no personal connection at all. In fact, in this instance, it is the black reporter who is there to exploit, while the white professor is motivated by friendship and concern.

When the reporter launched into an incoherent, generalized racial attack on the doddering, sensitive old white man, I had trouble believing the motive for the attack had much to do with a dying blues singer or social injustice. And when the hitherto scornful nurse was filled with a new respect for and romantic interest in the reporter because of this attack, I felt sad and disgusted -- to the extent that I felt anything at all, for by this time, the suspension of disbelief had long ago collapsed under the weight of ever-increasing improbability.

The bright side of the show is the music -- 19 great Leadbelly songs and four new Chris Thomas King originals. The Anthony Bean Community Theater has been one of the bright spots of the season. One can only salute Bean, who directed the show, for having the courage to try out unusual and lesser-known scripts. In this case, however, the lesser known, the better.

click to enlarge Chris Thomas King (as Leadbelly) shares a cell and the blues with cellmate John Sims in Goodnight, Irene.
  • Chris Thomas King (as Leadbelly) shares a cell and the blues with cellmate John Sims in Goodnight, Irene.
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