Road to renewal
The reborn American Blues Theater is ready to run.
When Jack Kirkland’s stage adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s brutal novel Tobacco Road opened on Broadway in 1933, it scandalized audiences with its portrayal of absurdist-level greed and desperation among destitute white Georgia sharecroppers at the height of the Depression. If shocked, theatergoers were also entertained: Tobacco Road ran on Broadway for seven and a half years (it remains the second longest Broadway run for a nonmusical).
Yet the play’s Chicago bow in 1935 shuttered after just seven weeks—not because it wasn’t packing the house but because week seven is when Mayor Edward J. Kelly attended. The following day, calling the show “obscene and lascivious,” Kelly closed the play by revoking the Selwyn Theatre’s license. (The producers won a federal court ruling against Kelly and were back in business the following week.)
“The play is outrageous, these people are outrageous,” says Carmen Roman of American Blues Theater, which is staging Tobacco Road at Victory Gardens’s Richard Christiansen Studio Theater. Patriarch Jeeter Lester refuses to give up his plot of land even though it hasn’t yielded a crop in seven years. As his family slouches toward starvation, Lester arranges marriages of convenience for his remaining children to rid himself of their responsibility.
Roman says that while ensemble member Dennis Cockrum, who plays Lester, has wanted to do the play for years, she didn’t read it until 2008. “It just hit me between the eyes, how much it relates to what’s going on in our world today,” says Roman, who plays Lester’s wife, Ada. “This farmer that will not move on, that will not adapt. The agricultural age was ending then; we were moving into the industrial age. There’s the same sense, for me, of the situation we’re in now, where people have got to adapt to the fact that we’re in a global economy. We have to open our heads up in a different way in order to progress.”
That could be a metaphor for the rebirth of American Blues Theater. In March 2009, Roman, Cockrum and 22 other ensemble members collectively walked away from their former home, American Theater Company, over disagreements with ATC’s board and artistic director PJ Paparelli about the company’s direction. The 24 re-formed under ATC’s original name, American Blues; Gwendolyn Whiteside took the reins as ABT’s artistic director.
Tobacco Road was, as Roman describes it, “a piece of the puzzle” that led to the breakup; Paparelli had shown little interest in the ensemble’s proposal of the play as a 25th-anniversary project. ABT eased into life with a holiday mounting of its perennial It’s a Wonderful Life; it followed with a first edition last month of Ripped, an ongoing series of short works about current events inspired by the WPA’s Living Newspaper Project. Tobacco Road is the company’s first new full production.
“What we did in six months would take most theaters just starting out two or three years,” Roman says. “We already have this base of friends and people that believe in us and a little bit of knowledge about how to do it.”
ABT’s two-play season for 2010–11 comprises Wonderful Life and the regional premiere of Mark Roberts’s comedy Rantoul and Die, both to be staged in the Christiansen. In the nearer term, the ensemble will mark its 25th anniversary with a celebration at the Old Town Amphitheater July 12. With ATC continuing to do vital work and regrowing its own ensemble (it’s now up to six members), the stage is set for both companies to thrive.
“I’m like, everybody succeeds or fails on their own merits,” Roman says. “I believe in that. We’re doing what we want to do, and it’s going to be great fun.” There’s a lesson here for Mayor Kelly: The show will go on.
Tobacco Road opens Thursday 27.