This House is Built on Rhythm and the Blues
When Laura Hull, Artistic Director and Founder of Creative Cauldron, first talked to me about the possibility of them doing Thunder Knocking on the Door, I asserted that I absolutely had to be the one to direct it. Why? Because I am one of the show’s biggest fans, and I wanted my chance at bat with this amazing piece.
I first saw this show at Arena Stage in the late 90’s, and I have never had more fun as an audience member. The songs made you want to dance, the book made you laugh out loud, the story was compelling and rich. I went back about ten times to see it before it’s run ended. I was a fan for life. And though it went on to have an Off-Broadway production and many accolades and awards after that, it never had a cast recording. So for the past 15 or so years, I’ve been chasing that music in my head.
When I first received my perusal copy of the script and score, it was like a family reunion. I got to catch up with the Dupree family after 15 or so years since last having seen them. I began reading the script and walking around our intimate space at ArtSpace Falls Church, and trying to see them there, as opposed to the vast size of the Fichandler, where I last saw the family. Suddenly I started to see our family much closer and more clear. I started to see where they lived, how they dressed, and what their world looked like up close. The Dupree family became more clearly visible to me in this intimate space than they had ever been before.
I started researching everything I could about their world. What did Bessemer, Alabama look like in 1966? What did the landscape look like? The clothes, the hair, the cars, the shoes. What did people in Bessemer, Alabama do for a good time in 1966? That led me to an interesting discovery. Gip’s Place is a Juke Joint, and not just any Juke Joint, but one of the oldest Juke Joint’s still in operation, and where is it located? Bessemer, Alabama. It is run out of a modified house, where the stage area looks to have been a back porch at one time. It is run by a family since it opened in the fifties. It is still run by the family.
While reading this, the opening number of our show, “This House is Built on Rhythm and the Blues” started running through my head. The Dupree family could easily have been this family that opened a Juke Joint out of their back porch. The family is loaded with musical talent, from the father, down to the twins. Suddenly our show was taking on a new concept and shape.
Scenic and Design Artist Margie Jervis started imagining with me, and soon we had a large tree holding residence on the stage. The tree is the magical tree that Jaguar Sr. carves the twin guitars for his children out of. This tree is a powerful visual, and resides next to the Dupree house. The Dupree house (or what we see of it) is the back porch side of it, which also doubles as a stage. My desire was to take the audience back in time to a Juke Joint and share this story with them. I wanted the feel of the journey through the woods down an unmarked path to a Juke Joint.
You see, going to a Juke Joint is different than going to a concert or bar or club. Going to a Juke Joint and listening to music is like going to your best friend’s house to listen to a record that you love together. Their is a hospitality and mutual love for what you are there to experience that is exactly fitting for my concept of the show. Zach Dalton started imagining with me, and soon enough, he created a wonderful world of whimsical Christmas lights strung in the tree and highlighting the stage area, as in all of our research, Christmas lights were and still are used to draw in crowds at Juke Joints. He created the place where the two roads meet out of swaths of light, and had helped to make the show have a look of magic about it.
Enter our brilliant cast, RaMond Thomas, Shayla Simmons, Iyona Blake, Malcolm Lee, and Michael Mainwaring. They are incredible, and giving layers to these characters that because we are now up close to the Dupree family in our intimate space, I have never seen before. Amy Conley, our Music Director is in charge of giving you the sounds of that 1966 Juke Joint, along with our blues band, and she has expertly hand crafted the sound to fit our world.
So come on out to Good Sister’s. As we sing in the show, “Sit down, stay as long as you like, everything is gonna be alright, don’t get nervous, ain’t nothing wrong, we gonna party with ya all night long.”
All photos are by Stephen Gregory Smith.