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Will Power

Deconstructing Stagger Lee

Buster Spiller chats with hip-hop theatermaker Will Power, whose musical Stagger Lee premieres at Dallas Theater Center this week, about the show, myth and the black male in American society.



published Sunday, January 25, 2015

Photo: Danielle Deraleau/TheaterJones
Stagger Lee, photographed at a preview performance, has its world premiere at Dallas Theater Center

Dallas — Since arriving in Dallas several years ago with his family as the recipient of a Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts Meadows Prize, charged with the development of a new plays and community engagement with local artists and partnering arts organizations through the Dallas Theater Center, Will Power has been one very busy man with a mission.

An award-winning playwright and performer, Power is passionate about storytelling, his new musical Stagger Lee, the importance of mythology in writing, and how creative projects like his can be used to bridge racial divides in this country by focusing on our shared humanity.

In 1895 on Christmas evening, Stagger Lee and his friend Billy Lyons were drinking in a saloon in St. Louis, Missouri when the two men became embroiled in an argument over Stagger’s hat, which Lyons had knocked off his head. Stagger shot his friend, left him to die and was charged with murder, for which he was convicted. After spending eight years in prison for the crime, he was released but returned two years later charged with assault and robbery. He died a year later still imprisoned.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Will Power

Both a real man as well as a myth based on embellishment of the actual facts, the legend of Stagger Lee has spawned a high number of music recordings spanning different genres, blues singer Ma Rainey, white country-blues musician Frank Hutchison, folk musician Woody Guthrie, R&B singer Lloyd Price, folk-rock singer Bob Dylan, pop-rock band Huey Lewis and the News, indie rocker Nick Cave and even actor/singer Hugh Laurie of House.

The world premiere of Stagger Lee marks the first time the story has been told on stage. For this production, the Dallas Theater Center received $50,000 in TACA’s inaugural Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund in 2012, as well as $70,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Power has been the playwright-in-residence (funded by the Carnegie Mellon Foundation) at DTC for nearly three years, and leads a playwriting workshop there. Stagger Lee is in previews through Jan. 29, opens Jan. 30 and runs through Feb. 15.

Directed by Patricia McGregor, the production stars J. Bernard Calloway as Stagger Lee, former Brierley Resident Acting Company member Cedric Neal as Billy Lyons, Saycon Sengbloh as Frankie, Brandon Gill as Johnny, Rickey Tripp as Long Lost John and Tiffany Mann as Delilah. The show spans the 20th century and uses several music styles, including blues, jazz, R&B and hip-hop, to tell the story.

In a recent interview with Power, he was eager to talk about his upcoming show, his process of developing new work, and the correlation between Stagger Lee and current situation involving law enforcement and black males.

 

TheaterJones: What prompted you to take on such a historic person who some may say is more legend—a mythical figure?

Will Power: Well you know what’s really fascinating to me is that a myth—I heard this, I can’t remember who said this but—a myth is a story that is part fact, part fiction [and] gets to the truth. You know what I mean? A lot of times in regular language you say “oh that’s just a myth!” you know, but myths oftentimes have more truth that facts, if that makes any sense.



It does.

Like I was explaining to my son, for example: [what] if there was a guy walking down the street and he was just so intimidating, so huge, and so powerful that he blocked out the sun, right? Well obviously he didn’t block out the sun but that might be more truthful as far as capturing that energy than if I say this guy was walking down the street and he was big and powerful! You know what I mean?

 

Yes, I get it [laughing].

So for me the Stagger Lee myth or folktale, it’s become a myth or whatever [because it] is based on a fact. Something happened, these two guys got into a fight, one guy shot another guy but what I’m interested in is the truth underneath it, the truth of what that means or could mean. You know what I mean?



Yes.

The truth of this African-American folktale is like, what does it mean? That’s what led me to do this. A number of years ago I was doing this adaptation of a Greek play and I was kind of faking it over with a kind of a proud, contemporary style. It was called Seven Against Thebes, which was about the sons of Oedipus. Mine was called The Seven. So I started to study Greek mythology. I’m not an expert or anything but I started to study it just to give me some context for what my version would be. Then I started to think as African-Americans and then as Americans in general, do we have a mythology? You know what I mean?

Photo: Linda Blase
Will Power's The Seven, produced in 2013 at Southern Methodist University

 

And if we do, what is it and if we don’t, why not? So these old stories Stagger Lee; Frankie and Johnny, which is an old folktale that’s also woven into this piece; Long Lost John which is a legend; and John Henry, which I didn’t put in here. I think these folktales are about as close to mythology as we have as an American people. There [are] hundreds of different versions and they were based on something factual just like all myths, and then they were exaggerated or enhanced to get to a deeper truth. So I was like, ‘let me go back to the source of America and not wait.’ Can we develop an American mythology? Those Greek myths may have started as folktales initially and grew into these epic proportions. America, and quite frankly African-Americans, are relatively new cultures. Now obviously our ancestry goes back to Africa and Europe but as a specific culture we’re only four to five hundred years old, you know what I mean?

 

Yes, so we’re babies.

We’re babies. As are Mexican-Americans, as are white Americans. I think a mythology takes time to develop, so that was my charge. Can I explore these stories and can these stories become an American mythology? That idea of fact and fiction [coming together] to make the truth. You know it’s really interesting because when you think of a fact, there’s a difference between the fact and the truth, at least artistically and culturally. Facts change but the truth doesn’t change. The truth is the truth.

 

When I was doing research on Stagger, I was kind of struck with that because there are some accounts that he shot the guy because apparently he took his hat, or shot his hat or something.

Knocked his hat off!

 

Knocked his hat off and he killed him. Got a prison term, was let out of prison, then had another charge, and then ended up dying. Those are hard facts you’re able to substantiate. But there was other information out there so how do you separate all of this stuff from the person yet fold it right back in so it stays intact the way you’ve just stated? So that’s really interesting.

Yeah, you know the thing originally, man, what really caught my attention when I was researching this piece is that there are many different accounts but all the facts kind of stayed. Two guys were gambling, you know, Stagger Lee threw something and the other guy Billy Lyons thought he was cheating, they got into an argument and Billy Lyons knocked off Stagger Lee’s hat, and Stagger Lee shot him. One account said they might have been friends.

Which was kind of interesting to me because what would make one friend do this to another friend so part of the exploration and deconstruction of the myth, what we think is truth, and what is the deeper truth beneath it. And the other thing that really fascinated me was this idea of Stagger Lee as this big, bad man, you know? Every era has had a Stagger Lee.

Without getting into the story, Stagger Lee is the destroyer but sometimes Stagger Lee is the protector. Like in my neighborhood, there were those cats who were like, rough, they looked at you wrong, they might beat you down but also if you were about to get beat up, that’s the guy you would call like “HELP! HELP!” You know what I mean?

 

[Laughing] I know. I had a neighborhood full of them. I’m from Flint, Michigan.

Exactly! They were the bullies but they were also like the protectors that if it got real rough, that’s the person you call and so that’s what Stagger Lee means to me. That energy is necessary in our community because without that Stagger Lee energy of somebody that would get gangster like that, there’s no way we would be able to withstand all of that racism the culture has experienced over the last few hundred years and still be here sane, or at least some of us half-stepping. No way we would have that energy to say “I’m going to keep running,” “I’m going to go to work,” or “I’m going to knock this dude out”; like that strong, buff energy…I keep going…that strength.

I came up in the 1980s and in my neighborhood there was too much Stagger Lee energy, know what I mean? Shot for ten dollars, shot for stepping on my sneakers, there was too much Stagger Lee energy. However, that energy in our community is necessary. If we don’t have it, we’re going to be sitting ducks but if there’s too much of it, we can turn on each other and destroy ourselves. So that’s what this piece is about.

 

With the legend of Stagger Lee are musical accounts about the story. Can you talk about that as it relates to this project?

Very shortly after these factual things occurred, people started writing songs about it and then it spread all over the country and then for generations, we told these stories. In 1920, it went from a field holler and became a blues song. Then in the ’40s and ’50s, it’s a rock ’n’ roll song; and Sam Cooke has a Frankie and Johnny song in the ’60s, a soul song; the Beatles have a Long Lost John song…there are so many Stagger Lee songs. 

[Here's Taj Mahal's version from 1969]

 

I know. Everyone has covered it.

Everyone has covered it. In the ’70s, Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party started calling himself Stagger Lee. That was the idea [of] “I’ve got the strength to stand up to the police, to stand up to the white man, to the system,” you know what I mean? Through the ’70s, we used these terms and then it kind of died down for a number of reasons. So for me I guess I feel like, “how can we have a common knowledge, a common basis for dialogue?” In ancient Greece or West Africa with the Yoruba people, they all use the orishas. They called them gods, they were like these spirits, these angels, you know; everyone knew them but then every storyteller could have their own version of it so you have a common foundational dialogue to talk, even across generations. Same thing with the ancient Greeks: everyone knew Hercules, everyone knew Oedipus, so a young person might tell those stories different than their father but they all had a common ground to talk about it. But now we don’t have a lot common ground amongst black people and most Americans, except for like the circus, you know what I mean?

 

That’s true.

So I’m also trying to bring back those things that facilitate dialogue across generations. Like the song moved through generations, this piece moves through time. The piece starts in 1895 and these mythological characters from our community: Frankie and Johnny, Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons, Long Lost John…they move across time. They don’t realize they’re moving across time but they move through time and they go to these different eras looking for the American dream, looking for a better way. So they go to Lyons, Miss., in 1895, then to St. Louis in 1910, Harlem in 1930, Chicago in 1951, Oakland in 1973, and then Detroit in 1987. So they go through the 20th century and every time they move the costumes change [and] the musical styles change but the conflicts from the last place and era continue, you know what I mean? It’s kind of like this, kind of...

 

They’re archetypes...

Exactly! Every era has them and so they’re kind of archetypes. And the music is like, they’re swinging in juke joints in Harlem, lindy hopping, there’s tap dancing, there’s soul and funk so it’s this big entertaining show but it’s also dealing with some serious social, political issues. We don’t pull any punches, really, in dealing with the issues—but it’s also very entertaining.

Photo: Danielle Deraleau/TheaterJones
Stagger Lee, photographed at a preview performance, has its world premiere at Dallas Theater Center

 

Is this your first time writing a musical? What was your process for merging the book with the lyrics that provided necessary historical data but still keeps it entertaining?

This is my first traditional musical, meaning we have a piano, vocal score, orchestrations, an eight-piece band, [and] everything is charted. I’ve done some pieces that were considered avant-garde musicals; in other words, it was kind of a musical because it was on a track or a DJ, or we had original music but there wasn’t a live band. So I’ve done a lot of stuff with music. Some people would consider my piece The Seven to be a musical and some would say it’s a play with music.

But I would say this is definitely my first kind of traditional [musical]—not traditional in content, but in structure. You know, big numbers, slow intimate ballads, you know what I mean? All those kind of things. A musical is no joke; it’s a juggernaut. There’s a reason why [Best Musical] is the last category to be announced at the Tony Awards. It’s not better than other forms because I’ve done straight plays [and] I’ve done solo works; but it’s just a beast, it’s just HUGE man, there are so many parts and that’s been exciting. The way I write is, I’m a storyteller so I write the books and the lyrics, then the melodies so I’m writing the song as I’m writing the book, holistically. However, I do have a collaborator, Justin Ellington, and he is very much an equal part of the music.

 

Any relation to Duke Ellington?

Now that I don’t know. So I’m working on the piece, I write a song, I do all the melodies and singing parts, and then he’ll come in and create all the instrumentation around it. And then of course we have Rick Fox, our musical director who will do all the phrasing and harmonies. And this guy Justin Ellington is a frickin’ genius, man! He came up in theater and music, he grew up in Atlanta, and we’ve done a number of projects together. He’s scored my straight plays, some of my so-called non-traditional musicals and he understands exactly what I’m trying to do. He takes my songs and just elevates them. He’s just amazing. He’s worked with hip-hop stars and pop figures and does theater. He exists in two different worlds. He’s a phenomenal talent. It’s been exciting to see this all come together and these things take time. I’ve been working on this for about four and a half years and its finally coming out. It’s just these things take a long time. We’re finally at the finish line...

 

For this incarnation of it…

That’s right! I hope to do it in New York or somewhere in the near future.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
From left: K. Todd Freeman as Stepin Fetchit and Ray Fisher as Muhammad Ali in a 2013 New York Theatre Workshop production of Will Power's Fetch Clay, Make Man

 

 

There appears to be a theme you have of creating work that features strong black men who are larger than life. This was evident in Fetch Clay, Make Man and now we’re seeing that same theme in Stagger Lee. Do you think white America is ready for portrayals of strong black men, especially those like Stagger Lee who the black community felt was strong based on his male bravado? We as blacks may feel they’re the protector of our community but others outside of our community may see the Staggers as a threat.

That’s an excellent, EXCELLENT question! I think it’s interesting because hopefully it can exist on a two levels. So on one level, it’s a story the African-American community is telling to themselves. But on another level I think, is really deconstructing, going in and humanizing who we are because we’re human beings, you know what I mean? Especially in light of Ferguson, what happened at that Walmart in Ohio, and all these travesties that have been going on with basically unarmed African-American men being shot by the police. A lot of times what they’ll see is a brute, a monster, but either the person is not that at all or they’re complex, they have a rough side and a beautiful side. It’s one of the two. What they’re never is a complete monster or brute, that’s never the case. And a lot of these cops and recent events have been reacting out of that, “that’s a monster, BOOM, I’m going to shoot him!”…so what I’m hoping to do is to deconstruct  that false perception that some people have of African-American males, particularly large African-American males. There was a cat in my neighborhood who was rough but he was also a real sensitive, beautiful and tender father. So when you follow the journey of these men—I don’t want to give too much away—you see Stagger Lee and how he’s human but you can also see someone who you consider to be the All-American African-American and see how those folks can be corrupted if the system keeps pushing down on them.

 

No, I understand. An analogy would be the image projected by John Wayne in the majority of his films. Very white Americana. He represented this rugged white dude who didn’t take anything from anyone and he was revered for it but when you flip it and it’s us, it’s a completely different dynamic at play.

That’s right! So that’s what I’m trying to accomplish, hopefully, when this audience goes on this journey. That by the end, this person we thought was a brute actually had some human qualities and this other person, Billy Lyons, who loved so much but you can see how people can get pulled down.

This is the world premiere of Stagger Lee but we’ve had a lot of workshops and invited select audiences and developed it over the years. A lot of people who are not African-American have stated the story reminds them of their grandparents. It’s the quintessential American dream.

 

» Buster Spiller is an award-winning playwright, author and freelance journalist. A frequent contributor to BroadwayWorld.com, Examiner.com, and the Dallas Voice, Buster has also been a featured op-ed columnist for the Dallas Morning News, Dallas Weekly, and the Windy City Times. A member of the Dramatist Guild of America, Buster is the founder/co-artistic director of GRIOT Productions, a theater company, and a founding member of Blaque Artists Collective, both based in Dallas. Buster’s writing portfolio can be accessed at: busterspiller.contently.com. Follow Buster on Twitter @BusterSpiller and Instagram @BusterSpiller.

 

Here's Ma Rainey's version, "Stack O'Lee Blues"

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Deconstructing Stagger Lee
Buster Spiller chats with hip-hop theatermaker Will Power, whose musical Stagger Lee premieres at Dallas Theater Center this week, about the show, myth and the black male in American society.
by Buster Spiller

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