Dressed in a lavender warm-up suit and strumming a 1933 mustard-colored metal guitar, Chic Street Man sits on a wide windowsill in Center Stage's rehearsal hall, working out the bluesy chords he will use when he sings the national anthem at Camden Yards next month.
His improvisational technique is similar to the method he used in 1989 when acclaimed playwright and director George C. Wolfe asked him to compose the music for "Spunk," the show Wolfe adapted from three short stories by Harlem-Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston.
Since then, Chic (pronounced "chick") has played the character aptly named "Guitar Man" in more than a half dozen productions of "Spunk" in cities from London to Los Angeles. Now, after a three-year break, he's doing "Spunk" again, this time at Center Stage, where it opens Wednesday.
Chic had only appeared in one other professional theatrical production -- a musical biography of Hank Williams called "Lost Highway" at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum -- when that theater contacted him about collaborating with Wolfe.
"We clicked real well," Chic says of his relationship with Wolfe, who is now artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. "George would say, 'Give me something from the country, something exciting and up-tempo, fast tempo.' And I would improvise."
That improvisation resulted in musical underscoring, some original songs -- in a style Chic calls "country blues" -- using Hurston's prose as lyrics, as well as two entirely new songs, "Hey Baby" and "How Do You Git to the Get," which opens the show and was created jointly by Chic and Wolfe.
Chic, who is also musical director of Center Stage's production, says in many ways this production is similar to the others he has done. All the versions use an ensemble of six to perform the three Hurston stories: "Sweat," about an abusive marriage; "Story in Harlem Slang," about two zoot-suited men-about-town who try to con a meal out of a hard-working woman on her day off; and "The Gilded Six-Bits," about a young couple whose happy marriage is threatened by an ostentatious stranger.
The one significant difference at Center Stage is that this play with music has more music than ever, according to director Seret Scott. More music was added because the cast -- which includes Ebony Jo-Ann, who played the title role in Center Stage's 1990 production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" -- is so talented vocally. Most of the additions, Chic says, are lines of dialogue that the cast sings.
Center Stage's production should be distinctive for another reason. Hurston, who is best known for her semi-autobiographical novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," attended Morgan State University in 1917, when it was Morgan Academy.
Chic believes the local connection "will make everybody feel a certain closeness to the production -- the audience included."
On the ball
Being a "Spunk" specialist is one in a long list of career directions Chic has followed in his 49 years. The earliest of these was baseball, which he chose not to pursue beyond the semiprofessional level. "I had the talent for it, but I didn't have the conviction," the lanky 6-foot-2 performer acknowledges.
Baseball would have taken him in the footsteps of his father, who was a pitcher in the former Negro Leagues. When Chic found he'd be singing the national anthem at the Orioles game April 28, he called his dad. "I said, 'See, I told you I'd make it to the professional baseball diamond,' " the performer says with a smile.
Like his ability in baseball, Chic's musical talent appears to be genetically based. His mother, Jannie, sang with Fats Waller when she was a teen-ager, and Waller invited her to tour with him. "But all my mother saw was being on the road with 40 men, and she declined," Chic says.
His mother gave him his first guitar when he was 6, but the instrument was vandalized in a burglary a few years later. "Another guitar didn't make its way into the house until I was 16," he says. At that point, he learned a few chords from his older brother, Ashley, who still plays avocationally; a younger brother, Big D (for "Dwight"), has a band called the Marsels in Boston. "Physically, [the guitar] came easy to me," Chic says.
By the time he was 24, Chic -- who was raised in Boston -- had
flunked out of Northeastern University, served in the Air Force and graduated with honors from the University of California at Santa Cruz with a major in psychology. In 1973, he left the United States and traveled to Europe, touring the continent in a Volkswagen bus. Having never completely given up music, he tried it professionally, cutting his first record in France that same year.
France is also where he came up with the final version of his unusual professional name. Born Charles Streetman, he had been nicknamed "Chicken" when he was a toddler by an uncle who teased him about being afraid of the noise of the elevated train outside his home in Boston's Roxbury section.
In the Air Force, he shortened the name to "Chick," dropping the "k" in France a few years later. He also found he enjoyed being introduced as "l'homme de la rue" (French for "the man of the street"), and he began separating his last name into two words.
Back to the blues
After appearances on radio and TV in France, he returned to the States after a second trip abroad in 1975 "to get back to the roots of my music -- the blues really." Although he doesn't like to label his musical style, it has been described as acoustic funk, urban folk and cat-gut jazz. His influences include Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, Taj Mahal and Stevie Wonder.
In the States, his career continued along an eclectic path. For a year, he was director of a fair housing program in California, and for nine years he ran the Chic Street Man School of Performing Arts in Santa Barbara. The school's aim was to use "the stage as a tool to help people get in touch with their creative side," he says.
His psychology training was useful at the school, as it has been in his music, with which he tries to connect with people of all ages. Center Stage patrons will be able to judge for themselves April 18 when he performs an evening of his music in concert. The theater is also selling his latest two CDs, "Everybody Be Yoself" and "Guns Away," the latter recorded on his newly formed label, Mo' Street Music.
"Guns Away," Chic reveals, was made partly as therapy during his recent recovery from cancer. "I was told I had a 50-50 chance. I just decided I was going to be in the 50 that survives," he says.
The disease was diagnosed in 1993, six weeks after he married violinist Karen Sorensen, a Peabody graduate he met when they were performing in Portland, Ore. She was in the orchestra of a touring production of "The Phantom of the Opera" and he was in yet another production of "Spunk."
While he's in "Spunk," Chic plans to conduct workshops with Peabody Preparatory students. He will also participate in Center Stage's Young People's Theater program, which takes theater artists into the schools.
These outreach efforts are the latest in a long list that has included performing at the United Nations for the International Day of Peace in 1989 and, last Christmas, at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, where he had been treated for cancer. "A nurse told me a lot of people don't come back here, [but] from the first day I came in as a patient, I wanted to do that," he says.
Center Stage's "Spunk" is the third theatrical production Chic has been involved in since his cancer was diagnosed. (He also composed incidental music for Brecht's "Caucasian Chalk Circle" at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and performed in "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" in Denver and Cleveland.)
And, he's just completed the third draft of an autobiographical one-man show called "Rag Man." "When I was a kid we always used to have these rag men who would come by on a horse and buggy," Chic explains. "What the rag man was doing was recycling old fabric and material and weaving it into new fabric, and so essentially [I'm] looking at past experience and constantly refining and reweaving a new fabric of life."
"Spunk" is an integral part of Chic's fabric. "One of the things 'Spunk' does for me, as does the blues, is it keeps me plugged into the black community. It also keeps me playing, developing my music, in the direction I want it to be going," he says.
For Chic Street Man, that direction is largely message-oriented, particularly in what he calls his "rap recitation" songs, such as the title track, "Guns Away." "Part of what my message is is we can make a difference if we care," he explains. "We have become numb to protect ourselves. My job is to remind people to care. Once we forget how to care, we don't have a chance."
To hear excerpts from Chic Street Man's "Guns Away," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four digit code 6162. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays, and 1 p.m. April 10. Through April 28
$ Call: (410) 332-0033
Where: Center Stage
When: 8 p.m. April 18
8, Tickets: $12 in advance; $16 at the door
Pub Date: 3/24/96