Remember 2003, when the Black Rep presented It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, featuring (among a host of fabulous performers) "Mississippi" Charles Bevel? Hold that thought and reach back thirteen years, when the company presented Stories About the Old Days, whose main character is a blues singer. Picture yourself as Ron Himes, artistic director, conversing with playwright Bill Harris about a revised version of Stories with more music and a real blues artist in that role. Picture Bevel playing that character, matched by the talents of Black Rep veteran Linda Kennedy as the flinty church-choir soloist who sparks a relationship with the reclusive blues singer. See Himes smile at this dream casting.
It's hard to imagine what the play was like before the addition of the musical interludes so deftly performed by Bevel and Kennedy. The often-conflicting but ultimately complementary strains of blues and gospel music parallel the relationship between the characters Clayborn and Ivy. Clayborn is a fading blues artist living in a church basement waiting to die. Ivy is a member of the church who harbors heartbreaking secrets that threaten her faith. The play begins too slowly, with an uninteresting scene of Clayborn cleaning the church, but once Bevel starts singing, time stands still as the blues erupt from him like a volcano -- uncontrollable and undeniable.
The bristly first encounter between the two is a stop-and-start battle for control that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the script. At its best, the dialogue is crisp and unique, peppered with humorous turns of phrase ("That barbecue sauce was so good a pig would commit suicide so you would slap some on it"). At its worst, Clayborn's stories seem endless and repetitious. A reverie on "the neighborhood" makes its point easily ("used to be you could get everything you needed in your neighborhood') but goes on too long with too many details. Occasionally Bevel seems to get lost in the maze of story, finding his way out finally with a song or punch line or a passing of the baton to Kennedy, who seems always at ease with the words of the play.
Kennedy creates a vibrant character, portraying Ivy as a strong woman battling internal demons while trying to keep a steady footing with the unpredictable Clayborn. Both characters are questioning God, struggling with guilt and anger. This simmering anxiety emerges unexpectedly, like steam bubbles in a thick sauce, while the hope of a new relationship charges the atmosphere with electricity. Costume designer Daryl Harris plays up the burgeoning bond with clothing that reflects the characters' growing interest in one another: Ivy, who dressed in everyday clothes in the first act, starts Act Two in a saucy purple dress; Clayborn cleans up nicely in a fresh vest and button-shirt, paving the way for the final scene, which features them in their Sunday best.
The musical additions and transitions are occasionally rough around the edges. Ivy singing "I won't turn back" becomes unintentionally funny as she suits the action to the word, running offstage while continuing to sing. The lighting shifts nicely delineate several "memory" sequences of music, but a few of the songs aren't clearly past or present. The musical climax is a back-and-forth blues and gospel duet, during which Ivy regains her faith and Clayborn rediscovers his blues. It's dramatically effective, but like some of Clayborn's stories, it goes on just a little too long.
Harris has created two intriguing elderly characters that defy stereotype and show that romance isn't just for the young. Though this fresh Valentine needs a little scissor work to smooth the edges, its heart holds an inspiring and entertaining story of love. These Stories talk about the old days but forge new connections that provide a forward thrust -- in many ways.