Playwright: McKinley Johnson
At: Bailiwick Repertory at Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Phone: (773) 883-1090; $20
Runs through: March 9
To most American theatergoers, a 'musical' is a dialogue accompanied by songs and dances. More recently, it might be a dialogue translated INTO songs and dances. But in McKinley Johnson's biodrama, the songs and dances ARE the dialogue, and the people onstage merely its vehicles for its conveyance. But if it takes us a bit to accustom ourselves to this unfamiliar idiom, and to the operatic dimensions in which the story is presented, the rewards are well worth the extra effort.
Thomas Andrew Dorsey got his first musical training playing the organ in his father's church. But he preferred the sinful world of vaudeville, composing and performing bawdy Blues ditties under the name 'Georgia Tom.' What inspired him to write sacred music is open to speculation (though Johnson has him 'seeing the light' through the influence of his wife's pastor), but by the mid-1920s, he was hawking his self-published hymns congregation-to-congregation, and shocking the conservative National Baptist Convention with anthems incorporating elements from popular music—up-tempo syncopations, barrelhouse arpeggios and vocals relying heavily on improvisation by the individual interpreter—to create the intensely personal, highly emotional performance style associated with what is nowadays called 'gospel' music.
This charismatic aesthetic was initially censured by ministers fearing the public image engendered by singers 'jumping like jigaboos,' and Johnson's text includes several scenes of Dorsey facing adversity, from his old chitlin'-circuit partner, Tampa Red, to a classical choirmaster who tries to high-hat him with Mendelssohn. Our hero's conflicts are mostly expressed by Dwelvan David's Dorsey writhing in anguish while melodic and kinetic arguments articulate as any human speech swirl around him in Goya-esque frenzy. The other characters—Donica Lynn Thornton's patient Nettie, Bobby Andrews' seductive Tampa Red, Melvia Rodgers' flirty 'Blackhearted Woman,' Llou Johnson's avuncular Reverend Haley—are likewise portrayed in allegorical proportions.
But the topic mandates such extravagance. This is JOYFUL NOISE, brothers and sisters. This is, Dorsey tells us, a 'sermon in song,' and if jazz played on a piano literally represented by a woman's supine body spreads the—uh, word, let none declare it profane. Can I get a witness?