Richardson — We meet South Dallas gospel singer Osceola Mays (Lillias White) and East Texas cowboy singer John Burrus (Willy Welch) when they first meet each other in Alan Govenar’s Texas in Paris, a play with music based on the friendship formed between a white former rodeo competitor and a black spiritual singer, during their performances in Paris, France and Florence, Italy, a tour arranged and produced by Govenar in 1989. The play springs from the playwright’s admiration for the real Mays, who died in 2004, and Burrus, who died in 2009.
The show, directed by Akin Babatundé, makes its Texas premiere at the Eisemann Center, co-presented with Govenar’s Documentary Arts, following an off-Broadway production in 2014.
White’s Mays is a smiling, chatty woman dressed in sturdy shoes and her Sunday best. Welch’s Burrus is a self-contained, quiet man in well-worn jeans and a straw Stetson. They take their seats on black folding chairs on an otherwise empty stage in the Eisemann’s 350-seat Bank of America Theater. The actors are backed only by a large screen with photos of a Dallas airport, a red-curtain theater presumably where they perform, and various iconic Paris scenes.
After some awkward dialogue in which the two exchange basic where-I’m-from information, the actors move their chairs to opposite ends of the stage and the screen splits to show two small hotel rooms. “Miss Mays,” as Welch calls her, starts singing the hand-clapping-game song “Mary Mack” to the little doll she’s brought along, and “Mr. John,” tunes up his acoustic guitar and sings “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” in a surprising and charming counterpoint.
The 90-minute evening proceeds with each singer taking turns, getting up from a folding chair and moving stage center to sing to a light opening night audience, and sitting back down to watch the other person perform. I counted at least 16 songs, most with a warm, gospel or folk song familiarity.
White, a Tony Award-winner (for The Life) who played Mays in the New York premiere, sings with no accompaniment and great conviction, clapping her hands and urging the audience to clap along. Her gospel songs include” “All God’s Chillun Got Wings,” “Do Lord,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and songs I remember learning at summer camp or from grade-school song books.
Welch, a Dallas singer and songwriter new to the role of Burrus, accompanies his songs on an acoustic guitar or banjo, and hits a happy campfire chord with ballads about poor cowpokes who died on the prairie or lost their souls to evil women. He also sings trail songs like “Get Along Little Doggies,” with a little yodeling and a lot of yippie-ki-yays when he forgets the words.
Between songs, the two travelers talk in short, awkward chunks of dialogue life about their experiences, seated at the same two chairs but with photos of a cafe or park behind them. Mays does most of the talking, recalling that her grandmother was a slave and how she feared even the white postman and how much better everything is in Paris. She regularly asks “Mr. John” if he thinks the crimes of a segregated society (in so many words) are Christian. He’s troubled and looks disturbed, but mostly replies, “I’m not much for talkin’, Miss Mays,” or just, “Yep.” He’s not one to break out of “the way it has always been done.”
Toward the end of the show, the two performers see that their songs about the rewards of the afterlife and the mercies of the lord are all in the same spirit, and they join together to sing a rousing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Both actors are clearly more comfortable singing together than delivering the lines describing their childhoods and domestic lives, mostly measured out in summary speeches between songs.
The audience clapped and sang along to their encore, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
White and Welch singing together warmed the big space of the Bank of American theater so much that I wished the duets started a little earlier in the show.