Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 1999
In every culture, in every native folklore, there’s a mischievous Trickster, a supernatural being given to capricious acts of sly deception. Often the imp is a wily animal: coyote, fox, raven, hare. In Africa, the trickster often takes human shape, and it’s this tradition that inspired playwright/director Keith Glover to create his seductive shapeshifter, the magical blues-guitar player Marvell Thunder, central character in “Thunder Knocking on the Door” (coming to the Old Globe’s Festival Stage, July 10-August 14).
“I wrote this more as a fairy tale than a folktale,” says the affable 33 year-old Glover (whose 1996 play, “In Walks Ed,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize).
“Folktales are usually darker; fairy tales are inherently lighter, happier, more innocent and childlike. And that’s what I was aiming for. I wanted to get away from the social/political realism of most black theater, and go back to the beauty, the magic, the mysticism of Africa and Egypt.
“Telling this story and using the blues were not separate issues. African language is very musical, and so is the dialogue of this play. I wrote the lines to be spoken in the rhythm of the blues. There’s still a certain tonality in how African Americans speak. We haven’t lost that.
“People think the blues is sad and simplistic. But it’s really deep and complex. It has so many colors and emotions. You play the blues when you’re sad to get out of that state. If you’re happy, it makes you happier. A lot of babies got made from listening to the blues! It celebrates life. And playing the blues is giving yourself over to something bigger than you. That’s what this play is about.”
Glover’s life was always steeped in music. His father, a jazz musician, actually made the magical guitars used in the show. In the play, those two guitars were bequeathed, along with his musical gift, to the twins, Glory and Jaguar, Jr., by their blues-whiz father. Now the conjurer Thunder has appeared to challenge the progeny of the only man who could ever out-lick him on the Delta blues guitar. The showdown is a cutting contest.
“It’s really a test, a rite of passage,” Glover explains. “To determine if you’re ready to join the tribe. It comes out of the music tradition, of the young trying to stand beside, or even out-do, the older generation.”
And if you can’t cut it, you get cut.
In 1996, when the play was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Glover scored the piece with blues standards. But he decided he needed original music, written by someone “living the blues tradition.” He chose Keb’ Mo’.
The multitalented Kevin Moore (Keb’ Mo’ is his onstage persona) wrote songs and played music all his life (acoustic, electric and slide guitar, as well as banjo), but he was late coming to the blues. When, at age 43, he released his 1994 debut album, it won the Grammy Award for Country/Acoustic Blues Album of the Year. His next two CDs were named Best Contemporary Blues Recording, and he received a W.C. Handy Award for Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year in 1997 and 1998.
When he met Keith Glover, Moore was impressed by the playwright’s “intensity, focus and passion. I liked the story, and he was so energetic, articulate, so passionate about the work. I’ve got more of a quiet intensity. But there’s a certain spot I get to, that it’s gotta be right, there’s only one way to do it. And when I see that in another person, it draws me in. I really like the theater, where people are totally into the work. In the music business, it’s all about ambition… But I decided to make music strictly for the love of it.”
Seems like that decision paid off — for Moore’s solo career and for “Thunder Knocking on the Door.” While making the rounds of regional theaters, the revised musical broke a 12-year house attendance record at the Arena Stage in Washington, and won the Helen Hayes Award for Best Musical.
Glover is pleased with the changes (“I needed a funk injection”), but he and his collaborators (Keb’ Mo’ and Anderson Edwards) are still tweaking the piece, all the way to its proposed November opening in New York.
“We want to really connect with the audience. They’re part of the process, too. If they’re reading their program or sitting on their hands, we haven’t done our job. We want them to feel good, to have a good time. But we really want to knock their socks off. When that happens, we’ve truly made magic.”
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.