Playwright Keith Glover is one of the hottest new names in nonprofit theater. And although the uneven “Thunder Knocking on the Door” needs a lot of work, it’s a fresh and strikingly imaginative piece that infuses familial comedy-drama with the theatricality of magic realism. Given the delighted reaction of the young, predominantly African-American audience in Montgomery, one can certainly see why this energetic and lyrical young scribe from Bessemer, Ala., suddenly has so many regional theaters excited.
Subtitled “A Bluesical Tale of Rhythm and the Blues,” Glover’s play is currently the subject of a three-way co-production between the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Baltimore’s Center Stage (where Marion McClinton’s premiere production travels next) and the Dallas Theater Center. Once that mini-tour has been completed, the show is scheduled for some major surgery (including the addition of an original score) before showing up on the 1997 docket at Yale Rep.
In its present form, the play weaves about 10 blues standards into the dialogue. Although some of the numbers are powerful wailers indeed (especially Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying,” Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and James Brown’s “Good, Good Lovin’ “), the out-of-context lyrics don’t fit Glover’s dialogue. With original songs that advance the plot, “Thunder Knocking on the Door” could be that unusual blues musical with real commercial possibilities.
The central character of the play is a blues singer named Marvell Thunder (Lester Purry), who rents a room from the Dupree family. Thunder has rolled into town to challenge the children of the only musician who ever “out-licked” him on the delta blues guitar. They are an unusual pair: Glory (Shawana Kemp) has lost her sight in a terrible accident, and her brother, Jaguar (Victor Mack), is a superficial swaggerer who has lost touch with his father’s legacy. Their mother, Good Sister (Harriett D. Foy), is trying to decide whether to marry her late husband’s brother, Dregster (Charles Weldon), and simultaneously prevent Thunder from causing family havoc.
Once the premise is in place, Glover kisses domestic realism goodbye. Thunder quickly demonstrates all kinds of strange, mystical powers (he can even restore Glory’s sight) and the play ultimately wanders deep into the intoxicating world of African-American folklore, ending in an atmospheric guitar showdown at “the place where two roads meet.”
In many ways, Glover is attempting here to extend the musical form and subject of the blues into the dialogue and narrative of a play – it’s a provocative idea, and Glover should push it further. At present, “Thunder” is a stylistically uneven affair that desperately needs consistency. When Glover lurches into traditional domestic comedy (as he does early in the second act), the show plays like a low-budget version of “Mama, I Want to Sing.” But when this talented writer feels his rhythms and unleashes his poetic fancy, the musical dialogue soars.
McClinton’s production features some excellent actors, all of whom can sing the blues with the best. And Neil Patel’s set nicely captures the dissolve of reality into whimsy. The sound quality in Alabama was disappointing, but hollow echoes didn’t prevent the audience from becoming transfixed by Glover’s unusual tales of magic in a Southern backwater.