text by David Walter Hall, music by Michael McHale
My first play and still, perhaps, my best, Cross Road Blues recreates one of the most compelling myths in American music: Robert Johnson’s alleged pact with the devil, hatched out at a crossroads one dark Mississippi midnight.
First performed as a student two hander in 2003, and later receiving five star reviews and sell out crowds at the Edinburgh fringe in 2005, the play has now been reinvented on an operatic scale. A new version, with the addition of an expansive choral score by Michael McHale, performed by a twenty-voice choir accompanied by a six-piece acoustic blues ensemble was given its first public performance at the Hackney Empire in 2009.
The new score was previewed to an invited audience at the Bridewell Theatre in January 2009, and was made possible thanks to a grant from the Peggy Ramsay Foundation.
Full Rehearsed Reading
Blues Singer vs. Soul Man
A TALE of a Faustian pact at the dark heart of the blues, this seductive drama crackles with diabolic menace. More myth than man, Robert Johnson died, poisoned in a bar at just 26, with only a few recordings to his name. But his reputation as the guitarist who sold his soul for greatness became the blues’ sinister underscore. In the prickly heat of a Deep South night, against a backdrop of racial tension, lynchings and voodoo, this superb single-act play brings his legendary sacrifice howling and moaning to life.
Squatting at a crossroads, Johnson (Kwesi Asiedu-Mensah) is a journeyman musician with a terrible past, desperate enough to test the fable of the big black man with the gift of songwriting who appears at midnight to tune guitars. But the gentleman (Adam Bisno) who squats beside him is white and educated, alternately beguiling and intimidating, proffering whisky, cigarettes and a terrible story of miscegenate love that destroys itself. He drags the younger man’s life story from him and convinces him that real music is born in defiance of God – it is the soul’s release from imprisonment. The frightened Johnson complains that the stranger would like to read him like a book, but, in truth, he has already been played like an instrument, his ambition and fear of persecution deliciously manipulated. You will never enjoy equality, so what price posterity, asks the demon.
The outcome is, of course, never in doubt. But the precocious David Hall, who wrote the play when he was just 19, creates an atmosphere of creeping, uncanny terror that grips from the start and never relinquishes. Through the charged poetry of the dialogue he evokes slavery’s ensnaring legacy and, through one man’s existential nightmare, the protesting quality of the blues. While Bisno initially appears too fresh-faced and slight for a tormentor, his darting eyes and sly smile quickly convince otherwise. Asiedu-Mensah is equally impressive, a well-built man who appears physically to shrink as the play progresses. And the denouement, in which Johnson sinks to his knees and sings his woe even as the devil unleashes a triumphal stream of verse, is mesmerising.
Edinburgh guide (link)
In the superstitious world of the American deep south, there have long been stories about an association between exceptional talent and possession by other-worldly powers. Robert Johnson, the now legendary King of the Delta Blues, died very young, apparently poisoned by a jealous woman, but then and now there remain rumours about his deal with the devil.
This brilliant and stylish two-hander, written and directed by David Hall, depicts Johnson, played by Kwesi Asiedu-Mensah, waiting at a cross-roads at midnight. From the shadows a white man, Adam Bisno, appears, offers him a cigarette and tells him a story. He does not give his name, but he is happy to talk, and Johnson in time overcomes his natural suspicions. And his life is changed forever.
This is a moving and graphic depiction of 1930s America, skilfully directed, and excellently acted by the two young performers.