Reviewed by Jeanette Toomer
Presented by The Drama League Directors Project, Schaeberle Studio Theater, Pace University, 41 Park Row, Aug. 17-27.
Cedric Turner is an extraordinary blues guitarist and storyteller in "Mister Bluesman." Directed by Lorna Littleway, Turner eases from narration into the role of Isum "Slamfoot" Sowell, fictional blues musician and composer.
Turner accompanies himself on the guitar and on the harmonica. Although his music often upstages him, he pushes forward with his misadventures, which cover his coming-of-age experiences in Sweetwater, Alabama, as well as encounters with colorful musicians and women in Memphis and Chicago. His travels expand his repertoire from country blues to include boogie-woogie and gospel-tinged riffs.
In the beginning, an older Sowell scorns the fact that, today, people liberally call themselves the "N-word." He recalls the word as a youth in Alabama when "nigger or boy" would suffice if you were black, "until you're old enough to be called Uncle." Upon release from a prison camp where he serves 11 years for hitchhiking and for killing his would-be rapist, he migrates north to Memphis and Chicago.
What is most disturbing is the internalized racism on display when, as a young teen, he and his friends ridicule a girl for her dark-complexioned skin and nappy hair. Although in later years Sowell redeems himself, it appears to be too little, too late for such gross treatment of an innocent child.
Littleway's direction allows Turner to move comfortably between folksy storytelling sprinkled with down home euphemisms and brilliant fingerpicking on steel and wooden guitars. Turner is hardly ever without a guitar or harmonica. There is authentic soulful blues singing in "Them Old Walking Blues," "Roll 'Em Bones," "The Hobo Jungle," and the title number.
The ending works more like an epilogue. The character talks about a new understanding of his inherent dignity. Yet it is clear that, in the blues tradition, self-preservation is an ongoing struggle.