Put a spell on you

Dec 12, 2001 at 12:00 am

Don’t expect some light musical merry-go-round of delightful melodies made to please and charm. It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues is a Broadway show of songs, reinvented with local talent by the Plowshares Theatre Company as a coarse, hypnotic, sense-twisting staircase built with blood, broken dreams and monumental musical structures plucked out of the DNA of today’s American music.

Playing now through Dec. 16 at the Music Hall, Blues will allure, cheat, elate, capture, betray, excite and trigger all those primal urges and emotions you may have forgotten about, but never completely lose, because they are as necessary to our human physical makeup as hydrogen and oxygen. African drumming and traditional chants such as “Niwah Wechi” begin the show, as the six members of the cast flow with grain-churning motions and morph into an undulating human star, singing with mock chains to songs such as “Blood Done Signed My Name” and “Raise Them Up Higher.” These are soulful songs created to keep time and to make the time pass while cutting and carrying crops.

And the voices of the cast offer up a collage: “In Africa, as we, a free people, celebrated the new harvest, we sang. In America, brought here as slaves working the land ... we sang. From the hollers and spirituals which helped us make it through the day ... I’m telling you people the blues was born.”

A handful of talk bridges the songs together, but unlike the usual musical fare, these are some of the most powerful songs on earth manifested from the beating and the breaking of the heart. They don’t just illustrate the story — they are the story, and the history, and the culture of people using voice and rhythm to relieve pain:

You keep talkin’ ’bout the danger blues
If I had me a pistol, I’d be dangerous too.
My knee bone hurt me and my ankle swell
Now I may get better, but I won’t get well.

When she sings this women’s prison song, Priscilla Price looks seriously worn and tired, but her voice is strong with a message. She’s part of the show’s wide range of vocal emissaries equipped to travel anywhere from Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues,” to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” to Jimmie Rodgers’ “T is for Texas.”

It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues connects blues to bluegrass, whether those strings are stretched over an African gourd or an American banjo, and it does so with the talents of musical director and performer Brett Rominger’s high-pitched, high-lonesome throat, born in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. James Bowen sings his way from “Walkin’ Blues” to “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You.” And hold onto your loved ones when Augustus Williamson bellows and improvises, “I got seven ways to touch you,” from the Willie classic “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Williamson sings with all four limbs, a mojo and hoodoo magic on top.

Annie Palmer will kick your heart right out of the house when she croons “Walkin’ After Midnight” with her smooth breaking tone that’ll pierce through any hardened shell. But by far the most jarring number is performed by Sheila Alyce Slaughter: a song written by a white Jewish schoolteacher who hated lynching, but given infamous voice by a black Lady who loved to sing:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

When Billie Holiday added “Strange Fruit” to her set, she not only took a revolutionary step for song, she slapped the country awake with a revolution as song. Though it’s an impossible act to follow, Alyce does it justice with her riveting rendition. She invests her whole body and every facial muscle into the physical gesture of song, propelling each note as if it were a new discovery and pushing those beautifully horrific lyrics to the breaking point.

It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues is a stage creation that forces you to remember that the blues weren’t made to entertain, but to help relieve some of the pain of being alive.

It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues
Dec. 12-16
Wed.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.
Sat., 3 and 8 p.m.
Sun., 8 p.m.
Music Hall, Center for the Performing Arts
350 Madison Ave., Detroit
Call 313-963-2366

Anita Schmaltz writes about theater and performance for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]