A rich journey into the history and relationship between blues and rock music, the Alliance Theatre production of I Just Stopped by to See the Man by Stephen Jeffreys offers an entertaining and engaging tribute to the Blues, bolstered by a talented and captivating cast.
Diving into Southern folklore, the play tells the story of Jesse “The Man” Davidson (Mississippi Charles Bevel) who has retired from playing the Blues after his reported death and has lived in the crossroads in a small town in the Mississippi Delta in obscurity. Living with him is daughter Della (Bakesta King). When a British rock star named Karl (Dieterich Gray) shows up to find his musical hero, who he believes isn’t dead, their lives begin to turn inside out.
Like the legend of Robert Johnson, who according to folklore sold his soul to the devil to play the Blues, Davidson has his own Faustian tale. It is the Devil’s music that he believes has ruined his life. This pain and hurt oozes out of every breath and crevice of Bevel, who captivates the audience with his own phenomenal Blues talent. Bringing a sense of weariness from living, he displays the perfect match of wit, charm and stubbornness.
Gray’s Karl provides a quirky edge to the play. Not only does he play and sing the Blues well, he provides a strong foil for both Bevel and King, whose Della is protective, strong and frail without falling into a stock performance that the role easily could trap her into.
Davidson tells Karl during the play that to sing the Blues you have to know the Blues, and the playwright should take his own advice. At times this play seems to only have an academic understanding of African-American culture, which is clearly seen in the stereotypical character of Della. King’s take on the character provides a bit more depth to the character, but ultimately the character’s far-fetched subplot lessens the impact of the show.
Despite that flaw, the play weaves a fascinating tapestry of history, music and psychology. Each of the characters is trying to escape something and is looking for something to rescue them. As Jeffreys explores this idea, the depth of his story evolves into a character study that would make an intriguing novel.
Directed by Ron OJ Parson, I Just Stopped By to See the Man plays at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre through April 08. For tickets and more information, please call 404-733-5000 or visit the Alliance Theatre’s website. The show’s running time is about two and a half hours with an intermission.
– Kenny Norton