Playwright Keith Glover is strumming a luminous, emerald-green guitar whose carved back fits so naturally against his body, it seems as if it were molded there.
The guitar is part of a matched pair that plays a crucial role in Glover's "Thunder Knocking on the Door," which opens Wednesday in the Head Theater at Center Stage.
Set in Glover's hometown of Bessemer, Ala., in 1966, the show focuses on the twin offspring of a late fictional blues guitarist. The twins' father was the only musician ever to out-play a mysterious bluesman named Marrvel Thunder. When the action begins, Thunder has won one of the twins' guitars and has come back for the other.
Beginning with the green guitars, "Thunder Knocking on the Door" is a play with a natural, almost organic connection to Glover, 30, a hot young playwright who was recently chosen one of "30 Leaders of the Future" by Ebony magazine.
Marion McClinton, who is directing "Thunder Knocking on the Door" and also has directed both of Glover's previous plays, cites his imagination, craftsmanship and ability to connect with an audience. "He's extremely talented," McClinton says. "I think his importance is unlimited because he is so young and because he is so polished at this age."
Comparing Glover to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, with whom McClinton also has worked, the director adds: "I think he's going to be around for a long time and might wind up in the end having a similar impact."
To get back to those green guitars, Glover is especially proud that the instruments were made for "Thunder Knocking on the Door" by his stepfather, Sherwood Phifer, a musician and luthier. "When he first came into my life I needed a father. Looking back at where the play comes from, it's him," says Glover, whose biological father is an ex-numbers runner who served time for murder.
Glover and Phifer had wanted to work together for years. "I'd hoped it would happen, but didn't foresee this happening," Phifer admits. "I hoped we would do a woodworking project. This far exceeds anything I'd thought about."
Phifer, who has a shop in Garnerville, N.Y., knew exactly what wood he'd use for the guitars when Glover showed him the script. A distinctive curly maple with mineral stains that produce a ripple effect, the wood was so exotic looking, he'd stored it away for several years, aware that most musicians prefer guitars with what he calls "blemish-free" tops.
"I read the play, and then I understood these instruments are supposed to be made of a magical type of tree. I said I've got just the stuff, and it's sitting there and it's been waiting," he says.
Although Glover acknowledges the strong influence Phifer has had on him, the roots of "Thunder Knocking on the Door" go back to the playwright's childhood in Alabama, where he spent his preschool years with his grandmother.
He mentions two uncles in particular. Uncle Bill, a blues lover who worked in the local steel mill, would come over with friends on Friday nights to buy home brew made by Glover's grandmother. Afterward, Glover says, they'd "hang around on the porch," singing and listening to blues on the record player. Their music and the sound of their voices worked their way into "Thunder Knocking on the Door."
The mystical elements of the play -- which include, in addition to the magical instruments, a character turning to stone and a showdown at the crossroads -- appear to have been inspired by sources ranging from George Bernard Shaw and Wilson to the great blues musician Robert Johnson, who claimed to have "sold myself to the Devil at the crossroads." But Glover insists these elements primarily derive from the "crazy stories" his Uncle Ripper used to tell.
"[Glover] is definitely an original," director McClinton says. "He knows legend, and he's also trying to create myths and legends, which is [an] aspect of the theater world that isn't dealt with as much these days. When you think of the great plays, it's not just about the drama or the issues that these plays bring up, it's that they create new myths."
Glover's Uncle Ripper is in the background of a childhood photo the playwright unearthed for luck with this play. In the photo, Glover is posed with his first guitar, a gift from his grandmother when he was a toddler.
At age 7, Glover began dividing the year between his grandmother's home in Alabama and his mother's in New York. His mother met Phifer, from whom she is now divorced, when she asked him to give Glover guitar lessons. Stepfather and stepson also turned out to share an interest in sports, particularly track, football and boxing -- the subject of Glover's earlier play, "Coming of the Hurricane," which was produced at Washington's Arena Stage last season.
Despite the rapport between Phifer and Glover, there were some tough times along the way. At 13, Glover threw another teen-ager off the roof of a four-story building, breaking one of the boy's legs. Glover escaped the police that time. But on another occasion he remembers his stepfather reprimanding him at the precinct house.
"I could have easily been in prison, gotten a record," Glover says.
When his frustrated mother, Earnestine, asked what he wanted to do, he told her he'd like to study acting with teacher and director Lee Strasberg, who had been the subject of a Village Voice cover story the week before.
Glover's interest in theater didn't come out of the blue. It had been kindled a few years earlier when his mother took him to see "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf" at New York's Public Theater. "It blew me away," he says. "I remember wanting a way in."
His mother, who is now deputy clerk of the appellate court in the Bronx, worked nights in a bank to pay for the Saturday classes, which Glover remembers being attended primarily by kids from Long Island. "I was like an alien, the tough kid," says Glover, who has two younger brothers, Kelvin, an accountant, and Brandon, a freshman at Morgan State University.
Glover received further encouragement when playwright Herb Gardner and Gerald Chapman, founder of New York's Young Playwrights Festival, taught a seminar at his lower East Side high school. He wrote a 25-character play about football that was a finalist in the festival, and he also got an internship at New York's Circle Repertory Company. There he heard his play read by a cast that included playwright Christopher Durang and actor Earle Hyman.
Glover attended Ohio's Bowling Green State University on a track and football scholarship. But the aspiring playwright, who had been labeled functionally illiterate by his ninth grade English teacher, once again found his writing discouraged. He dropped out after 3 1/2 years, when his football eligibility was up.
On stage and screen
Back in New York, he pursued a career as an actor. His screen credits include the continuing role of Kenny Hathaway on "As the World Turns," "New York Undercover" and the movie "Jacknife." On stage, Center Stage patrons will remember him from the starring role of Sterling in the 1995 production of Wilson's "Two Trains Running," directed by McClinton.
In April, Glover will be back at Center Stage starring in another Wilson play under McClinton's direction, "Seven Guitars." In addition, McClinton, who is also a playwright, is writing roles in two new plays for Glover, who combines what he describes as "a real touching vulnerability" with a tall, athletic presence.
Glover, who still lives in New York, was acting out of town, with his days free, when he drifted back into playwriting, a field in which he regards McClinton as a mentor. Glover's first play, "Dancing on Moonlight," debuted at New York's Public Theater in 1995. Part Greek tragedy and part Harlem gangster tale, it featured an incidental score by jazz percussionist Max Roach.
He followed that with "Coming of the Hurricane," a powerful historical drama about an ex-slave, bare-knuckle boxer during Reconstruction. A fourth play, "In Walks Ed," focuses on a trigger man who returns to a Harlem bar to repay his lost love. The recently named winner of a new play prize at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, it will debut there under the playwright's direction in February. He emphasizes, however, that he is not interested in acting in his own plays. "As the writer, I need to be outside what's on stage," he explains.
"Thunder Knocking on the Door" differs from Glover's other plays in at least two respects. Unlike those darker works, it's what he describes as his "happy play," a romance he wrote for his wife, Veronica, who gave birth to their daughter, Alena, the night after the play's October premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Glover is the first playwright in residence at the Alabama theater, which commissioned the play and is co-producing it with Center Stage and the Dallas Theater Center.
The other difference shows up in the play's subtitle: "A Blusical Tale of Rhythm and the Blues." Glover defines a "blusical" as a play interspersed with classic blues numbers intended to work on an emotional level, as opposed to a traditional musical, in which the songs carry part of the narrative.
"We didn't know at first whether the songs were going to feel tacked on," McClinton admits. The result, however, is that "songs that weren't even written with each other in mind feel [as if] they come straight out of the story."
In spring, "Thunder Knocking on the Door" will be produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre with an original score by Keb' Mo'. However, the classic songs fit so seamlessly into Glover's script that McClinton wonders "whether an original score will have the same kind of impact as songs that are steeped in the tradition."
Glover will be performing "Seven Guitars" at Center Stage when "Thunder" is at Yale Rep. Although he is suddenly much in demand, there were times when his success seemed far less assured. In those leaner days, Phifer, his stepfather, remembers the aspiring playwright asking whether he should get "a real job."
Phifer, however, had faith in Glover's calling. "My answer was, 'You should pursue whatever it is that you feel you're here to do. Not everyone is aware what their actual purpose is,' " he says, adding proudly, "He held on and stuck fast."
Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays, and 1 p.m. Dec. 27, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22. (No performances Dec. 24-25.) Through Jan. 26
Tickets: $24-$29 Call: (410) 481-6500
Pub Date: 12/15/96