Best known for the Off-Broadway musicals, "The Last Session," "The Big Voice: God or Merman?" and "New World Waking," a song cycle for peace and justice.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Real Texas in Paris (with a surprise bonus round ending)

Saturday night. Jim Morgan, artistic director of the York Theater, says to me:

"Hey! You look like you could play a grizzled old Texas singer of cowboy songs. Want to do a reading? It's a new play. Two characters."

Since I say Yes in the Bonus Round, the script arrived the next day via email.

I've never played a lead in a new play that Jim and I didn't write ourselves. What an exciting adventure!

I saw that the play, Texas in Paris, was based on a true story. Two old Texas singers. One, a white cowboy. And the other, an African American Gospel singer. Plucked up from obscurity (and poverty) by a young hippie-looking student from Boston searching for "real Texas" singers, whom he recorded and then booked to headline a series of concerts in Paris, France -- the birth of a lifelong friendship.

John, a man who mostly played for himself or at tent revivals and Osceola, daughter of a sharecropper who only ever sang at home or in church. (It was her church members who suggested her). A woman who lived through the days of intense racial violence, whose mothers, to this day, still whisper the words "white people" even in their own homes. (Just in case they are out there in the bushes waiting for a reason to beat you).

As I read it, though I didn't live through that period, I recalled us moving to Buna shortly after they desegregated the schools, the buildings of which were on the same plot of land, but on opposite corners. (The Black school became the new Junior High while the larger White school became the high school.)

But, everyone was "pore." No one down there had much money. They lived off the land or had a job at the paper mill. But it was really country. I remembered encountering some very racist people. And the KKK Store, with robes in the windows not 30 miles away.

John is a devout Christian who grew up just as poor as Osceola and there's a moment in the play where these two connect -- a story he tells about sharing a water scoop out in the fields where he worked alongside the Black kids, where he has a spiritual revelation that everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

I remembered getting the "you're no better than anyone else and you're not less than anyone else; all are equal in the eyes of God" speech from my own dad, a Baptist minister who did grew up in a form of John's world over in Arkansas.

In previous readings, I was always nervous, feeling like an amateur who doesn't belong.

But, thanks to my friend Andy Gale, who invited me into his Sunday scene study classes, I sat there feeling totally confident.

Tuesday. 3pm. (I got there at 2:30 because I hate being late for anything.)

In comes this amazing bear of a man with whom I instantly fall in love.

"I'm Akin Babatunde!" Huge smile. Warm handshake. The Director!

I love the name so much, I say it back to him and then "That's a great name! I'm Steve."

Akin is a Brooklyn man who lives in Dallas. So we talked about Dallas for a moment. He also registered that he had heard of The Last Session, but we didn't put the pieces together.

Then came Debra Walton -- who looks 60 years too young to play this role (but then, so do I), but this is just a reading. The point is not to give a performance, but simply read the words, with some direction, so that the author and a select few can hear what they've got, so they can move onto the next rewrite.

I think that's also why I wasn't nervous. My job is to enunciate. I can do that.

I also asked if I should use my Texas accent, which I do anyway. Jim and I almost never speak to each other, when we're alone, any other way. His current favorite show is Hollywood Hillbillies. Memaw is currently the best character on "the teevee."

Jim Morgan came in and also Alan Govenar, the very music scholar and author who found and recorded them and who is also the author of the play. He is on NPR a lot and has written all these books about Texas blues (and more).

He said neither of them had ever sung professionally. She had only one dress, held together with safety pins, along with a few "amazing" hats from the ladies in her church. John just brought some jeans and jean shirts. And now they were headlining in Paris.

 Looking at the script, I knew the Gospel songs, but I did NOT know all these cowboy songs and there was no score written out. So, the plan was for Debra and me to simply recite the lyrics unless we knew the song.

However, I went on Spotify and found all the songs, made a playlist and just kept playing it over and over. I thought I could learn them at least well enough to give the sound of the songs. The problem is that those old songs kind of sound alike until you really know them. I would start to sing it without a prompt and it would inevitably turn into "Wabash Cannonball."

But it was fun to Hear Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie or, my favorite, Marty Robbins. And also, a raw, guitarist/singer named John Burrus, who wasn't a technically great singer or player, but whom you could imagine out on a campfire, with just friends.

As we began to read, I was grateful that Akin gave us a few performance notes. Like, "not angry" here or "more defensive" there. He really knew the play inside and out. It was a great relief to have those signposts written in my script. In fact, at one point I told him to just tell me fast or slow, loud or soft, it was all good to me.

I think if this were me four years ago, I'd have been terrified and sweating and feeling nauseous. Instead, I just read the words and sang the songs about as well as I could remember them. I wrote numbers of the scale over the words to help me remember the shapes of the melodies. Or I made up my own melodies.

I think the Alan, the author/musicologist, took a liking to my singing. He said, in an intriguing way, "I've never heard anyone sing quite like you before."

I was thinking he was like Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" listening to people talk and trying to figure out which area of London the accent came from. Except Alan does it with singing.

A BONUS ROUND ENDING
By the way, remember I told you about the raw recording that I found featuring a singer named John Burrus? Turned out that that's exactly the person I was portraying who I knew only by his first name, John.

There was something very bonus roundy about this. Someone (Alan) knocked on his door, pointed a microphone at him and said, "Sing."

So, he made a kind of "last session" record. 30 years later, another songwriter (me) unknowingly stumbles across his music and studies it in order to play him in a show about that guy's life.

Funny, that could happen to some actor or songwriter in the future. long after I'm gone, who is cast to play Gideon. He may not even know the backstory of the show and was just randomly listening for recordings -- exactly what happened here.
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