New shows are thrilling, especially those focused on real people. This past weekend Open Door Theater launched the world premiere of an original “chamber musical,” meaning a show featuring few instruments mounted in a smaller venue, called It Don’t Just … Shake Off. This historical production by McKinley Johnson, featuring some new songs by playwright and music director Eric Troy Sr., is lively and fascinating.
Johnson, who is also the director, has mounted several successful shows at Open Door in the past. This time he is showcasing the rough-and-tumble lives and popular music of two legendary African American musicians, Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), aka “The Father of Gospel Music,” and Tampa Red (1904-1981), aka “The Guitar Wizard.” The bulk of the music presented is vintage stuff by these two composers.
The three versatile actors who make up the cast are consistently exciting and credible. Marc A. Rogers plays light-skinned, influential Chicago bluesman Tampa Red, whose real name was Hudson Whittaker. His career spanned over 30 years, including the 90 “sides” he recorded with Dorsey when they were sometimes billed as the Hokum Boys. Despite his great popularity, Tampa Red was a complicated man who eventually died a destitute alcoholic.
Michael Anthony Neely portrays Thomas A. Dorsey, known in the early days as “Georgia Tom.” He became well known in the 1920s when Chicago was the epicenter of jazz and blues. A leading blues pianist who performed everywhere from rent parties to Prohibition speakeasies, Dorsey became most famous when he essentially created gospel by combining the lively rhythms of jazz and the blues with joyful, uplifting Christian content. But during this period, mainstream churches rejected his songs. Preachers routinely called it “Devil Music.”
The third cast member, impressive Fania Bourn, plays a Muse-like character called Big D, “goddess of the blues,” who functions indefatigably and seductively between the two musicians. Bourn is nearly always on stage, playing a number of other roles too, from a female preacher at a convention to the great ’20s blues singer Ma Rainey.
The play is allegorical and surreal at first and I’ll admit I had some difficulty determining just what was taking place for a while. The actual title of the work, I think, is also a problem. It is not easy to remember, and it doesn’t seem to have a clear meaning or reference. But my initial blurriness and confusion disappeared once the plot kicked in.
As both Tampa Red and Thomas A. Dorsey, Rogers and Neely pretend to be playing instruments very effectively while live music is featured. All three of the performers have fine voices. Bourn especially covers a variety of styles, from raucous blues to more sanctified, soulful stuff.
Like many others in those years, the two men came up north to Chicago during what was called The Great Migration. Tampa Red worked a day job but also played a lot on street corners and in “Black Belt” clubs. He grew famous for his “slide technique,” playing the guitar with a broken bottleneck. His big break came when he became the accompanist for Ma Rainey.
Neely conveys moments when we can see beyond Thomas A. Dorsey’s raucous music to his revolutionizing sacred church music. His best-known composition, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” was composed after his young wife died in childbirth and his newborn son passed shortly after. He founded the first black gospel music publishing company and died in Chicago at 93.
The impressive set design by Josh Prisching features the front porch of a weathered looking southern cabin, a rustic sharecropper home, complete with a screen door. Prisching also designed the lighting.
McKinley Johnson’s new musical It Don’t Just … Shake Off offers a close look at two amazing historical figures from the musical world. This newborn show perhaps needs a more focused, less blurry beginning. But the performances are top-notch and the songs are wonderful fun. Open Door, 902 S. Ridgeland, has worked hard on this production. General admission tickets are $25. Phone: 708-386-5510. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; through July 23.