October 19, 2022

A DJ Urges His Reluctant Idol to Perform Again in “Blues in My Soul”; Passage Succeeds with Lively Drama that Lets its Actors Make Music

“BLUES IN MY SOUL”: Performances are underway for “Blues in My Soul: The Legend and Legacy of Lonnie Johnson.” Written by David Robson and directed by Ozzie Jones, the play runs through October 30 at Passage Theatre. Above, Lonnie (David Brandon Ross, left) reluctantly plays for an enthusiastic Chris (Jonathan Jacobs). (Photo by Liz Cisco)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

When a play dramatizes a true story, especially about a long-dead public figure, often the resolution can be learned from the subject’s Wikipedia entry. The challenge to the dramatist then becomes to build enough tension and suspense to make the audience wonder whether a historical event will happen — and if so, how.

That is what playwright David Robson accomplishes so successfully in Blues in My Soul: The Legend and Legacy of Lonnie Johnson, which is being presented by Passage Theatre (following its premiere at Delaware’s City Theater Company earlier this year). A play with music, Blues in My Soul depicts the meeting of blues and jazz luminary Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson and DJ, journalist, and record producer Chris Albertson.

Johnson (1899-1970) was a singer, guitarist, violinist, and songwriter who performed with legends such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith. Gérard Herzhaft writes in the 1979 Encyclopedia of the Blues that Johnson was “undeniably the creator of the guitar solo played note by note with a pick, which has become the standard in jazz, blues, country, and rock.” Artists such as Elvis Presley, B.B. King, and Django Reinhardt were influenced by Johnson. But by the late 1950s, he largely had faded from the public memory.

Albertson (1931-2019) was a disc jockey at Keflavic Air Base in Iceland, before migrating to the United States. In Philadelphia he worked for WCAU and WHAT-FM. Later he authored Bessie. a 1972 biography of Bessie Smith. For his work producing reissues for Columbia Records, he won multiple accolades, including two Grammy Awards and a Prix du Disque.

In 1959, in the course of his work for WHAT, Albertson learned via an anonymous call from the Benjamin Franklin Hotel that Johnson was working as a janitor there. The following year Albertson produced Blues by Lonnie Johnson for Bluesville Records.

But in Blues in My Soul, Lonnie is reluctant to return to performing. He is disinclined to trust Chris, and is unwilling to trade the security of his current job for the unpredictability of the music business. The world-weary Lonnie and the starry-eyed, somewhat naive Chris are unlikely collaborators.

Blues in My Soul opens Passage’s 38th season, which the company has given the theme of “Foundations for our Future.” All of the shows explore “ building on the past in order to create a new future,” states Passage’s website. “As we move forward from two very difficult years, we want to acknowledge and reflect on how the lessons we learned from the past will help to shape what’s to come.”

Skillfully directed by Ozzie Jones (who also provides the voice of Lonnie’s coworker Irving), Passage’s production opens with Lonnie on stage, and Chris, who stands in the auditorium, gazing admiringly at footage of his idol’s performances. Chris, who hopes to craft a future based on Lonnie’s past success, reverently approaches the stage to talk to his hero. He has brought with him a guitar and a large box.

The stage does not resemble a performance space. Marie Laster’s elaborate set places us in a spacious but somewhat cluttered storeroom in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. The walls have cracks in them, indicating that they have fallen into disrepair — and looking at the set before the show, one wonders whether that echoes what the room’s occupant feels has happened to him.

But the concert footage Chris sees — which the character seems to be imagining or remembering — is projected on the walls. This suggests that although Lonnie no longer performs, he has imprinted his personality on the room.

When we meet Lonnie, he wears a blue janitor’s uniform. In contrast, Costume Designer Tiffany Bacon outfits Chris with a striped shirt of vibrant white and red.

David Brandon Ross infuses Lonnie with the world-weariness and deliberation that the character’s age and experiences would have brought him. Jonathan Jacobs matches this with the right combination of deep respect and youthful enthusiasm. Both actors are talented guitarists, a skill that is used well by the play.

Chris nervously hides behind a piece of furniture, but Lonnie finds him rather quickly. Ross and Jacobs let their characters’ body language be sharply divergent when they meet. Chris eagerly strides forward and tries to initiate a handshake; Lonnie stands back, reserved. The tableau is a blueprint for their relationship during most of the show.

Eventually, with persistent urging from Chris, Lonnie plays the guitar that his devotee has brought. Later, Chris takes a turn. Again, the contrasting body language speaks volumes. When Lonnie performs, Chris’s gaze is admiring; when Chris plays, Lonnie gives him a coolly appraising look.

The songs become an extension of the dialogue; the conversation between the two characters is musical as well as spoken. Lonnie performs some of the songs on which he built his career: “Long Black Train,” “Tomorrow Night,” and the song that gives the play its title, “Blues in My Soul.” Chris responds with “Wayfaring Stranger,” in which Jacobs demonstrates his sturdy vocals and smooth, earnest phrasing.

Ross — a composer, performer, musical director, and Boston Music Award recipient — commands the stage with his renditions of Johnson’s material, infusing every moment with energy and passion. Audience members frequently exclaim “Yeah, baby!” Often the play feels, pleasantly, like a concert with a plot added.

However, any rapport that has been built between the two musicians — and any headway Chris might have made in persuading Lonnie to return to performing — is jeopardized by an action Chris takes. Surreptitiously he attempts to make a recording of Lonnie without the latter’s permission. We discover that Lonnie has had experiences of being cheated by unscrupulous record producers who did something similar.

Throughout the conversation, we hear other bits about Lonnie’s past. For example, in 1919 he returned home from a tour in England, to discover that all of his family, except for his brother, died in the 1918 influenza epidemic.

The show candidly probes racial injustice. Chris (who is white) hears about some of Lonnie’s experiences as an African American in the (segregated) music business. This ties in with both Passage’s mission for its season, and a key theme of the show: if the two men are going to have a future rapport, let alone a partnership, then the past — and the all too present — injustices need to be confronted. Lonnie emphasizes to Chris that their lives are not the same. Issues of authenticity are discussed.

But Lonnie has come to reject musical boundaries and labels. He relates how Bessie Smith reprimanded him for disdaining “Tea for Two,” a show tune (from the musical No, No, Nanette) that she chose to sing.

In tandem with Jasmine Williams’ lighting, Aaron Oster’s sound design distinguishes the “present” from Lonnie’s memories. Late in the show, Lonnie sings in front of a microphone that Chris places in front of him. The scene is deftly staged so that we wonder whether Lonnie is singing for a real, or imagined, audience.

There is a scene in which Lonnie and Chris both play guitar. Before launching into a song, they try to get their instruments in tune with each other. It is a beautiful segment, because it encapsulates the spirit of Blues in My Soul. Before they can collaborate to make music happen, they must — literally and metaphorically — find a way to get in tune with each other.

The actors, however, are in tune with each other throughout the play. The result is a riveting piece of theater.

“Blues in My Soul” will play at Passage Theatre in the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street in Trenton, through October 30. For tickets, show times, and more information call (609) 392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org.