Dallas — Men shout hoarsely and dogs bark and snarl as the curtain rises on a dark stage lit by a huge full moon, where a panting black man is running scared across a field, taking cover briefly before the men grab their “boy” and drag him back. The scene is fast and horrifying, a vivid tableau of the slave on the run, the black man seeking escape from the jailhouse, the tenement, the Jim Crow legacy of slavery and racism. The man is an incarnation of Long Lost John (Rickey Tripp), a historic newly freed slave who outsmarted the sheriff and his pack of hounds and got away.
Long John’s story, still sung by black inmates in Texas prisons, is the first of three legendary stories based on real events in early African-American history, embodied in award-winning playwright Will Power’s monumental musical Stagger Lee, co-composed by Justin Ellington, in its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center. The show was developed by DTC in collaboration with Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University. SMU Meadows Prize winner, faculty member and current DTC playwright-in-residence Power and his longtime collaborator Ellington have labored mightily for more than four years to compress the creative and often chaotic energy of the black and white cultural collision and jagged assimilation in America, from slavery to the present, into a two-hour musical featuring musical styles from each era.
It’s a bold undertaking, and for the most part, the DTC team delivers the goods.
Stagger Lee’s score is an alluring, shape-shifting shaman. The dancers rev on all pistons, the humor is concrete and the ensemble is sharp and fully collaborative. Sometimes the message is overstressed, and we must suspend our disbelief that the same characters move forward in time but never age—but it is a confluence of myth and reality. Director Patricia McGregor harnesses the explosive drive and heart-wrenching emotion of this ambitious show that weaves together these stories, evolving over time in songs that reflect truths about black America.
Confusion occasionally arises with some characters since many of the ensemble members in the 21-actor, all-black cast play multiple roles and the years change without much indication aside from costumes, sets and music style. Still, the thrills outweigh the spills in this musical mash-up.
For sure, the songs they sing and the moves they bring are true, true and still true.
The myth of Stagger Lee, the show’s central figure, springs from a historical event in a Saint Louis bar in 1895. Big “Stag” Lee Sheldon shot his drinking buddy Billy Lyons when Billy snatched Lee’s hat from his head, and walked coolly from the scene thereby evoking hundreds of songs about this proud, ruthless killer. Stagger Lee’s outlaw power has attracted singers from Woody Guthrie to Lloyd Price, James Brown to Elvis Presley. The many songs about Frankie and Johnny are also based on a true story of a woman who shot her cheating lover dead four years later in the same big city.
Power breathes life into these mythical characters in the form of two young couples. We first meet Delilah (Tiffany Mann, an ardent soprano with a rich vocal range) and her husband Billy (Cedric Neal, as heroic and tender a tenor as you’d ever hope to hear) as they try to get a foothold in St. Louis in 1910. Joining them are Frankie (Saycon Sengbloh, a sassy and sexy mezzo with swag to spare) and her lover Johnny (a long-limbed Brandon Gill in born-to-flirt mode), who is also Delilah’s little brother.
But wherever they go—from Harlem in 1930 to Chicago in 1951, and on to Oakland in 1973 and Detroit in 1987, and right up to now in a suburban housing development—a big man in a Stetson is on the same train, standing outside the door or stepping into the same bar. That man is Stagger Lee (a quietly powerful J. Bernard Calloway, evoking pride and loyalty or fear and trembling, depending on who he’s smiling or frowning upon). Billy loves Stag because, when they were young boys, his fierce friend saved his life when a lynch mob was after him. Johnny, on the other hand, lives in terror of “that bad man” who threatens and bullies him. Delilah mistrusts Stag because she hates violence and fears for Billy when he hangs with his old friend. Tough, savvy Frankie finds a little Stagger in her own jealous heart.
One of the show’s most poignant scenes occurs immediately after the Jim Crow moment when Delilah says goodbye to her children in a swelling, melodic burst of song, reflecting both her sadness at leaving them behind and the rush of hope for a new life in the big city. She’s going to join her husband Billy, waiting for her in St. Louis, the crossroads of American expansion at the turn of the century. Neal’s Billy is all eager anticipation and yearning as he waits in the big train station, a giant engine pulling in and out behind him, and a heart filled with hope as he sings of the thrills in store “when you see my Delilah.”
We want so much for these young people to fulfill their dream to “build our home” and send for their children. When the Big City turns out to be not the bright Promised Land, but a dirty apartment with no job in sight, Stagger shows up right on cue. Over and over, all the characters must to deal with the urge to violence, against each other or a punitive white society. We hear Martin Luther King, Jr.’s epic words at the opening of the second act, but we also see the Black Panthers in a call for kings and queens of Africa to seize a piece of the pie they are owed from years of slavery. Pushed and pulled apart, they have their humor, their songs and tradition to vent their rage and express their joys as they move through our constantly incipient American culture of which they are a profound yet often dispossessed part.
McGregor moves her excellent cast swiftly through time and space, as they boogie or breakdance in and out of imaginative, veteran set designer John Arnone’s handsome multiple sets that slide from the sides or drop from above, evoking a place and era visually. Cotton Club anyone? Dede M. Ayite’s superb costumes also reflect the fashion of the era at hand, from textured homespun dresses to glittering flapper gowns for the ladies. The women even look good in their riveter gear on the assembly line. The male ensemble shine in handsomely tailored zoot suits, and one quartet sings some doo-wop in Salvation Army uniforms.
Music director Rick Fox and his sharp 12-man band don’t miss a beat with the shifting styles and moods of Ellington’s rich, multi-layered orchestrations, from ragtime to hip-hop and points in between. Choreographer Camille A. Brown's crack dance ensemble is all svelte lines and muscle. Dancing as a unit or solo, each dancer retains an individual style as they execute a sexy cakewalk or a jubilant jitterbug, and offering up a living manual of moves from disco, funk and hip-hop. The smooth and pumped break-dancer got a well-earned round of applause on opening night.
The time travel brings us to the present all at once, and the shock of the landing is definitely felt. It ends with an image that reflects the rocky cultural landscape in an America in which old wounds still aren't healed.
» Read our interview with Will Power about Stagger Lee