Blues at Steppenwolf

Blues at Steppenwolf

By Edith McCauley, Theater Critic

One play written 30 years ago by Chicago native Philip Hayes Dean and Stephen Jeffreys’ current work both examine the lives and relationships of families in the ’50s and ’60s and the impact of music on their lives. The Sty of the Blind Pig, currently running at eta in Chicago, is Dean’s story of a mother and daughter living on the South Side. Their conventional lifestyle belies the political turmoil taking place in the larger community. Elizabeth Shivers and Tina Marie Wright as mother and daughter confront the problems of two generations amid the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement.

Enter a stranger at the door. Blind Jordan, played by Vincent DeJan, carries his guitar almost defensively. Telling his story through song, his search for an unknown woman in the projects remains a mystery, possibly only a ruse to enter the lives of the lonely.

J. J. McCormick as Doc, Weedy’s brother, typifies the black man using all his skills to survive in a racist world. “Getting over” becomes a way of life, but no sooner does he achieve success than it is taken from him by a trusted friend. The ties with the South remain strong, and the dream is to return and live the good life.

The Blues began in the late 1800s, and because so many of the musicians came from the Mississippi Delta, it is considered the birthplace of the Blues. I Just Stopped By to See the Man, set on the Delta In the early ’70s, combines myth and reality. Jesse (Anthony Chisholm) lives at the crossroads. Only here can an ordinary musician achieve greatness. His guitar and hat hang on the wall and, considered dead by the outside world, his life revolves around the sanctified church across the road.

Yvette Ganier is his daughter, Della. Seeking sanctuary from the political upheavals and violence of the fight for equality, she feels her safety is guaranteed with a man considered dead. The British music scene has adopted the Blues, incorporating them into their amplified sound. Jim True-Frost is Karl, a middle-class Britisher on tour. His quest to find Jesse succeeds, and a return to public life, though brief, is the dramatic high point of the play.

In comparing these two works, the common threads are the guitar, the music telling a story, child and parent relationships, and the stranger who changes the dynamic of the play. The Sty of the Blind Pig remains the stronger work. Its historical significance, emphasized by interaction between the characters, gives the play its relevance. Thirty years after its initial production, we relate to the human strengths and frailties of those caught up in the pressures of the outside world.

The flaw in I Just Stopped By to See the Man is not in the actors’ depiction of the characters, but in the characters themselves. A play that deals with the Blues requires an examination of the inner soul. It wasn’t there.

The Sty of the Blind Pig at eta, 773-752-3955, runs through Dec. 29, 2002.

I Just Stopped By to See the Man at Steppenwolf, 312-335-1650, runs through Jan. 12, 2003.

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