Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Marvell Thunder (Ronnie Allen) currently holds the role, having made the deal. He arrives to prey upon the Dupree family. Good Sister Dupree (Greta Oglesby) has survived three husbands and now keeps company with Dregster Dupree (T. Mychael Rambo), twin brother of her first husband Jaguar Dupree Sr. Dregster is keen to wed Good Sister but she is through with marrying. Jaguar Dupree was one of Thunder's victims, losing a face-off against Thunder at the crossroads. Before he died, Jaguar Sr. left a guitar for each of their children, son Jaguar Jr. and daughter Glory, which are the family's prize possessions.
Now grown, Glory (Rajané Katurah) is blind as a result of an accident incurred when pursuing a man who betrayed her. Jag Jr. took off to make money, and records a rock and roll album because, unlike the blues, it pays. He runs into Thunder, who challenges him to a cutting contest, and now returns home with a wad of cash but no guitar. Not yet satisfied, Thunder comes around for one last conquestGlory's guitar. Since losing her sight, Glory has not kept up her guitar skills, but he makes her an offer too good to pass up: he restores her sight and promises to let her keep it if she wins. But if she loses, Thunder gets the last of the Dupree guitars. Glory prepares, while Good Sister, Dregster, and Jag Jr. try to either dissuade her or ensure her success through devious means, fearful of losing the last remnant of their family's blues legacy along with Glory's vision.
The play is set in playwright Keith Glover's birthplace, Bessemer, Alabama, in 1966. Its music would have been on the radio through that time, so you won't hear any rap, hip-hop, electro-band, or other music that came later. The songs, by Grammy-winning blues artist Keb' Mo', with contributions also from Anderson Edwards, give characters material to demonstrate their blues guitar chops, while riding the narrative's emotional arc. They are performed at one corner of the stage by keyboardist Sanford Moore and guitarist Deevo, with drum tracks provided by Steve Jennings. The music is part of the language of the play, giving layers of emotion and hints at past experience that inform us about each character and every step in the plot. Besides that, the music is so top flight, they could have turned off the lights, called it a concert, and it would still be time wonderfully spent.
Director Marcela Lorca has a sure hand for narratives with a foundation in myth and fable, and turning them into something that feels authentically like real life. The show is played on a tiny square surrounded by their audience on all sides, with minimal sceneryin this case, Seitu Ken Jones has fashioned a couple of modular units that form seats, tables and platforms; a tea cart that becomes the kitchen where Big Sister whips up meals; and a signpost pointing in all directions to guide the way to the crossroads, as well as to Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago and Paris. Sarah Behr has designed costumes that look well worn for the folks at home, but create a sense of ancient myth, with bold gold tones, to convey the other-worldliness of the cutting contest at the crossroads. The guitars are works of art onto themselves, formed with elegant filigree designs that signal us that these instruments are not merely for playing music, but for making contact with a higher plane being.
Ten Thousand Things consistently attracts top tier talent to their productions and Thunder Knocking on the Door is no exception. Rajané Katurah is especially impressive here, as Glory transitions from the protected daughter whose outlook for a future seems dim, to the fierce, guitar-wielding combatant, ready to seize control and to fully feel her power. Katurah has emerged as one of our finest actors, and also here has the funniest line in the play, which she delivers with great finesse.
Greta Oglesby buffers Good Sister's long-suffering efforts to maintain her family, her home, and her dignity, against great odds, with sharp humor. T. Mychael Rambo convinces us that Dregster will never give up wooing Good Sister in spite of her firm refusals. Ronnie Allan is smooth as silk as Marvell Thunder, making it easy to believe he can entice anyone he pleases into a cutting match. Brian Bose cuts a comical swath as Jaguar Jr., constantly twitching and easily triggered into action. Every member of the cast possess a beautiful, soulful voice, and they pour their full hearts into the songs. They also dance with grace and spunk, working through Bose's choreography that packs an amazing amount of movement tiny space.
Glover wrote Thunder Knocking on the Door in 1996 as a commission from the Alabama Shakespeare festival, and it has been frequently mounted in regional theaters around the country, including a 1998 production at the Guthrie. The show is well suited to Ten Thousand Things' trademark stripped-down productions, staged with all the lights on for audiences that rarely have access to live theater, as well as at more standard venues. The actors are very much in the face of the audience, in a good way. The audience with whom I shared the show at a YMCA in north Minneapolis was enthralled, clapping and head-shaking to the music, calling out advice regarding the characters' dilemmas and loving it when actors paused to make a direct connection with them. At the start of one blues riff, a woman in the audience called out "I got the blues!," fully invested in the truth behind the story on stage.
That truth laces through and around the barriers that keep Good Sister from allowing Dregster into her heart, the weight on people's lives that makes them willing to risk everything for a shot at greatness, and the healing power of love to draw people back from the abyss. While these themes ramble through the play, the sharp humor, integrity of the characterizations, and soul-edifying music drape the serious musings with bolts of hilarious and heartwarming entertainment. Thunder Knocking on the Door is a play that will prompt you to ponder, but is just as willing to let you turn off heavy thoughts and just have a real good time. Either way, it comes wrapped up in terrific music that makes it wholly irresistible.
Thunder Knocking on the Door runs through March 22, 2020, and April 2, 2020 - April 5, 2020 at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis MN; and March 26, 2020 - March 29, 2020 at North Garden Theater, 929 West 7th Street, St. Paul MN. Tickets: $45.00 opening night, May 17; all other performances, $35.00, Pay what you can, $15.00 minimum, for those under 30 with ID at the door. Extremely limited ticket availability for remaining free community performances. For tickets call 612-203-9502 or go to www.tenthousandthings.org.
Playwright: Keith Glover; Music and Lyrics: Keb' Mo' and Anderson Edwards; Additional Music and Lyrics: Keith Glover; Director: Marcela Lorca; Set Design: Music Director: Sanford Moore; Choreographer: Brian Bose; Set Design: Seitu Ken Jones; Sound: Robert Everest; Costumes: Sarah Bahr; Props: Joseph Everett; Drum Tracks: Steve Jennings; Wig Design: Robb Grier; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Dialect Consultant: Mikell Sapp; Assistant Costume Designer: Ash Kaun; Stage Manager: Salima Y. Seale; Assistant Director: Ashwanti Sakina Ford; Production Intern: Trey Porter.
Cast: Ronnie Allen (Marvell Thunder), Brian Bose (Jaguar Jr. Dupree), Deevo (guitar), Rajané Katurah (Glory Dupree), Sanford Moore (keyboards), Greta Oglesby (Good Sister Dupree), T. Mychael Rambo (Jaguar Sr./Dregster Dupree).