Theater review, 'I Just Stopped By To See The Man' at Steppenwolf Theatre

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With its undertow of racial and class-based division, the thorny question of just who, exactly, can claim the right to sing the blues, has been around pretty much since Mississippi blues legend Son House first got drunk and startling wailing more than 80 years ago.

The debate shows up whenever theater and the blues come together — an intersection nurtured with numerous contemporary incursions by the likes of playwrights August Wilson and Keith Glover. And it's at the heart of English playwright Stephen Jeffreys' provocative and intellectually stimulating three-character play at the Steppenwolf Theatre, "I Just Stopped By To See The Man," here performed under the smooth direction of Randall Arney, who now runs the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

The central issue is something like this: Since the blues were born of a specific milieu of poverty, pain and racial injustice, does that mean the young, or the white, or the commercially aware, or the superficially flashy are ipso facto, cultural rapists? Or do those who love a great art form have the obligation to allow it to transcend the specificity of its roots and bring economic rewards to its originators and creative satisfaction to the world at large?

It's an issue that's hardly restricted to the blues. With its tale of a legitimately urban white rapper —and a subplot involving an arriviste black rapper from an affluent suburban private school — the new Eminem movie "8 Mile," is about much the same thing.

In the case of the Steppenwolf play (seen in 2000 at London's Royal Court Theatre), Jeffreys puts himself through all kinds of plot contrivances to make this cultural debate as sharp as possible. Set in the 1975 Mississippi Delta, the play revolves around Jesse (Anthony Chisholm), a celebrated old blues musician from the Delta who faked his own death some years before to get away from the diabolic blues and live a quiet, Christian life in a rural town. Jesse has recently been reconciled with his daughter Della (Yvette Ganier), a political operative who's on the lam and finds it convenient to hang out with a guy everyone thinks is dead.

Peace is shattered by the arrival of rich Karl (Jim True-Frost, playing guitar and sporting glitter), a star English rock musician who's selling out American stadiums by covering old blues tracks to the delight of white college kids. Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, perhaps, are supposed to come to mind. But Karl is on a personal cultural quest — looking to save his soul from drugs by embracing the roots of his art. That means resurrecting Jesse. But will that mean damning him all over again?

The considerable strengths of this script are in its literate exploration of potent themes; its weaknesses lie in an excess of first-act talkiness and a certain lack of cultural believability.

The paradoxical European affection for black American music is a historical fact rooted in difference — check out the weekend crowd at Kingston Mines. The play wryly observes that this obsession with the roots of the blues is an affectation. Della, on the other hand, is all about escape from her historical reality, just as escapees from a working-class neighborhood prefer to skip the trips home.

By way of balance, Jeffreys has Karl whine that even a white boy from Surrey knows a thing or two about alienation. Anyway, who's even gonna hear the blues if a young fan ain't bringing the old guy to the stage?

Played with zest and splendid complexity by True-Frost (who sings and plays well enough for this role), Karl is carefully observed. But even if one can swallow the idea that 50,000 young white Southerners were dying to see an old black man play for them in 1975, the play's African-American characters seem less secure. Even within Tom Lynch's gorgeously detailed set, the scent of cultural romanticism is in the air.

Both Chisholm (stunning in "Jitney") and Ganier (terrific as Tonya in the Goodman's "King Hedley II") are formidable actors with great intellectual force and emotional capabilities. As one might expect, their scenes together are superb.

But Ganier fights a woefully underwritten character whose motivations and actions often don't make sense. Chisholm, meanwhile, splendidly captures the reclusive side of a character who's scared of opening up a personal Pandora's box.

But he's too buttoned-down — along with a script that needs more of the spontaneous air of the blues to feel like it belongs in Chicago, where the blues are not an ocean away. When Jesse opens his mouth to sing, one doesn't sense the requisite caged soul of a perennial bluesman desperate for escape.

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