The Robert Johnson saga is America’s very own version of the Faust legend. One advantage of the Johnson story is that there’s ample proof Johnson actually lived, and his indisputable life story, though much too short, provided enough grist for the legend mill to grind out a fascinating tale.
The legend has it that young Robert Johnson, son of an impoverished mother whose husband had abandoned her, was a struggling blues singer and guitarist scratching out a living in rural Mississippi. A thoroughly mediocre musician, the young Johnson was once booed off the stage when he appeared between acts of the evening’s headliners. Humiliated, he slunk off into the night, disappeared for a short time, but then reappeared having acquired a mastery of the blues guitar that stunned all those who had heard him perform not long before.
So how did this musical bumbler go from disaster to a master in such a short time? The legend claims that Johnson set up a rendez-vous with the devil at a crossroads one midnight and struck a deal: Johnson offered his immortal soul in exchange for the ability to be a great blues artist.
Always keen to add another lost soul to his vast collection, the Prince of Darkness readily agreed to the deal. He showed Johnson a few tricks on the guitar, then returned the instrument. The young man then strode off and spent the next eight or nine years as an itinerant singer-songwriter-musician, wowing audiences at juke joints, street corners and rural dance halls, mainly in the South. Towards the end of this time, he also managed to record twenty-nine of his songs, many of which are now considered blues classics.
One sweltering night in August 1938, Johnson was strutting his stuff at a dance hall in a small town just outside of Greenwood, Mississippi when he suddenly fell violently ill. He died three days later, writhing in pain and racked with convulsions for most of that time.
The legend likes to see the hand of the devil in that death. According to purview of the legend, Johnson was trying to renege on his deal, so the devil decided to collect on his debt early.
The more mundane version of the Robert Johnson phenomenon is that following his humiliating performance, he sought out someone who could teach him how to play like those he idolized. Under the tutelage of the highly regarded guitarist Ike Zimmerman, Johnson quickly developed his unique style of playing the guitar and then returned to claim his place among the top blues artists.
According to the anti-legend, the night he fell ill, he was hitting on a married women at the dance hall where he was performing. The woman’s severely jealous husband poisoned the whisky Johnson was imbibing, which would explain the convulsions and abdominal pains he was reported to have suffered.
However, others describe his last days differently, which have given rise to other theories behind his sudden death at the unripe age of 27. (Yes, Johnson was a charter member of the 27 Club.) Some attribute his death to advanced syphilis, a burst abdominal ulcer or a pre-existing injury to his aorta. No autopsy was performed, and the death certificate doesn’t mention any cause of death. In fact, we don’t even know for sure where the blues legend was buried.
The aggrieved husband spiking Johnson’s drink with poison is still the prevailing theory, though enough doubts, inconsistencies and gaping holes remain in the accounts of Johnson’s demise as well as his rapid acquisition of musical skills to keep the legend of the deal with the devil afloat. Which brings us to the latest production of the Lantern Theater Company – Me and the Devil.
As the title clearly implies, this play fully embraces the deal-with-the-devil fable. Actually, it yokes the core of that fable with key elements of the more realistic account of Johnson’s life and death. In this well-wrought play, Johnson dies and proceeds to the mouth of Hell, where he confronts Satan. The blues great argues that he should not be consigned to eternal perdition despite the dire terms of the contract. (Which he admits he did freely agree to.) Johnson feels that the devil has not truly kept up his end of the bargain because of Johnson’s early exit and a few other missed benefits.
The Prince of Darkness counters that even without the contract, Johnson’s lifestyle would have earned him his place in Hell. This leads into a kind of civil suit during which each side calls in witnesses who will testify as to why the blues master should or should not be in Hell. It’s during these testimonies that we learn a clutch of the accepted facts about Johnson’s life – as far as historians and biographers have been able to uncover.
The piece, co-written by Steve H. Broadnax III (who also directed this version) and Charles Dumas, is a robust piece of writing that spins its narrative while finding enticingly lyrical strains in the Southern African-American idiom to do so. The final product is an engaging tale of a flawed but essentially decent human being who possessed a near-superhuman talent.
Although the play program lists a cast of four, it actually operates as something close to a monologue. One character (Ebony Pullam) is seen in an extremely brief walk-on while we only get to see the hands of James Herb Smith as he renders some of the more difficult guitar riffs. The only bit of dialogue ensues in that debate between Johnson and the devil, though even there, the devil is only heard, never seen. (In addition to co-writing and directing this show, Steve H. Broadnax III provides the imposing voice of the devil.)
Lawrence Stallings delivers a virtuoso performance as Johnson and the various people from his life who testify for or against him. Not only is Stallings a fine blues singer (with a less tortured undertone than the Johnson originals), but he is an altogether captivating actor. Stallings is most convincing as Johnson but is also excellent when he dips into the roles of some of the witnesses at the trial. (He’s especially compelling as Johnson’s close friend Sonny Boy Williamson and as one of Robert’s last lady friends.)
This production is a filmed version of the play, which allows for a number of facial close-ups and small details nicely captured. (The dropped whisky bottle slowly oozing out its contents is a good visual metaphor for Johnson’s life oozing out over his last few days.) It’s best described as one of those hybrid productions that uses the advantages of film while still holding on to a certain feel of the theatre experience. As Stallings is quite accomplished at using his face to convey significant subtext, this hybrid presentation works well in service to this particular play with all its nuance and knottings.
Broadnax’s direction obviously played a major factor in the success of this production. Lighting Designer Shon Causer (assisted by Isabella Gill-Gomez) is also to be commended for bringing another engaging dimension to the production and making James F. Pyne, Jr.’s spare set a fitting staging ground for the story.
With a stellar central performance, adept filming and some of the biggest hits of Robert Johnson embedded into the show, Me and the Devil turns out to be a wonderful show that I can heartily recommend.
Me and the Devil is an online production. After purchasing your ticket, you’ll receive a link that allows you a 72-hour window to stream on demand after opening the link. Tickets (at $20 each) can be purchased on the Lantern Theater Company website www.lanterntheater.org. The Theatre Philadelphia website will also connect you to the Lantern platform to purchase tickets.