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A CurtainUp Review
Blind Lemon Blues

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Blind Lemon had a mystery about him. People sometimes wondered if he could see, or not.— Lead Belly.
Blind Lemon Blues
Akin Babatunde
(Photo by Carol Rosegg.)
"Blind" Lemon Jefferson was one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920s. With Huddie "Lead Belly" Leadbetter he established the blues scene in Dallas. His influence can be seen in countless blues and rock & roll artists who followed. Yet for most, save the connoisseurs, he remains unknown.

This oversight is now being corrected with York Theatre Company's Blind Lemon Blues, a tribute to the man, his music and the extraordinary times he lived in — times that produced the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Lillian Glinn, Hattie Hudson, Bobbie Cadillac, Lillian Miller and Lead Belly himself.

Blind Lemon Blues is the brainchild of Alan Govenar (playwright) and Akin Babatunde (playwright/director/choreographer/musical arranger/Blind Lemon Jefferson), whose original production, Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues. was presented at the Addison WaterHouse Theatre.

Set in New York City in 1948, Blind Lemon Blues is told through the eyes of Lead Belly (Cavin Yarbrough) at his last recording session. But, because Lead Belly lost contact with Blind Lemon during the height of Blind Lemon's career, the play drifts into multiple points of view by its second act. That, coupled with the fact that Yarbrough plays several parts, occasionally leads to some confusion.

The show is filled with wonderful, toe-tapping, hand-clapping numbers that give the audience a soulfully entertaining picture of the artist's work. But Lemon is seldom given the opportunity to speak for himself. There are few props (Blind Lemon's cane is an important exception) and a generic set depicts a receding countryside. All this makes Blind Lemon Blues often seems more like a revue than a play.

The device of using Lead Belly as narrator is questionable. In fact, at times it's hard to understand why he is onstage at all, especially when Yarbrough does nothing more than sit in a chair playing the guitar while Krevens plays offstage.

Krevens's guitar playing is in the spirit of the times and a joy to hear. Songs like "Midnight Special," "Rock Island Line," "Motherless Child" and Blind Lemon's signature "See that My Grave Is Kept Clean" can either rock the house or make the soul ache. But itís hard to determine how much of the music Yarbrough and Babatunde are actually playing, and most of it seems to be coming from offstage, which is slightly disconcerting as they are supposed to be the musicians.

The supporting cast of Timothy Parham (a great dancer who lent superb color to the show) as T-Bone Walker, Alisa Peoples Yarbrough as Lillian Miller, Inga Ballard as Bessie Tucker and Carmen Ruby Floyd as Hattie Hudson is sometimes so good that they upstaged the principals. Yarbrough, who joined the production in 2002, is particularly impressive on the piano.

At one point in the play, when Blind Lemon is confronted by gossipers, he says"So let them talk. I'm my own person. I'm my own man. I don't need nobody. A blind man don't see nothin' but darkness." The playwrights would have done well to listen to Blind Lemon and let him be his own person, not only in song but also in words.

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Blind Lemon Blues
Created by Alan Govenar & Akin Babatunde
Directed by Akin Babatunde
Cast: Cavin Yarbrough (Lead Belly), Bessie Tucker (Inga Ballard), Carmen Ruby Floyd (Hattie Hudson), Timothy Parham (T-Bone Walker), Alisa Peoples Yarbrough (Lillian Miller), Akin Babatunde (Blind Lemon Jefferson), Skip Krevens (Guitar)
Scenic Design: Russell Parkman
Lighting Design: Steve Woods
Costume Design: Tommy Bourgeois
Choreographic Consultant: Norma Miller
Movement Consultant: Janet Watson
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
York Theater Company at St. Peter's Church, Lexington Avenue 212-935-5820
Opened 9/17/09; closing 10/04/09
Tues to Sat at 8pm; Sun at 2:30pm
Tickets, $67.50
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Sept. 15, 2009
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