"Thunder Knocking on the Door" is a play that warns: Don't take things for granted -- not your eyesight, not your talents and certainly not your heritage.
The playwright, Keith Glover, bears the hallmarks of a second generation August Wilson. Many of the issues Glover raises are reminiscent of the work of that Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright.
But while "Thunder Knocking on the Door," currently at Center Stage's Head Theater under Marion McClinton's direction, pays unacknowledged homage to Wilson, it's also an entity unto itself -- a hybrid Glover describes in the play's subtitle as "A Blusical Tale of Rhythm and the Blues."
The minor distinction means the show is more than a play with music, though not quite a traditional musical (such as "Triumph of Love," the show completing its run in the downstairs Pearlstone Theater and making this the most music-filled week in Center Stage's history).
Music permeates the Bessemer, Ala., household of Good Sister Dupree (Harriett D. Foy), where "Thunder" takes place in 1966. Instead of original compositions, however, the show's songs are mostly classic blues numbers that pop up when the spirit overtakes the actors.
The play is, in large part, about the blues -- not so much the gut-wrenching, down-in-the-dumps blues, but the more exuberant, gotta-sing variety. The blues run in the family's veins. The opening scene reinforces this by having the characters introduce themselves in musical riffs -- an appropriate technique but one that's also too busy; it blurs concentration instead of focusing it.
The late paterfamilias, Jaguar Dupree Sr., was "the best guitar player to have never recorded," according to his twin brother, Dregster (Charles Weldon). The assessment seems accurate since Jaguar was also the only musician ever to out-play a shape-shifting trickster named Marrvel Thunder (Lester Purry).
Now Thunder is back to challenge Jaguar's grown twin offspring, Jaguar Jr. (Victor Mack) and Glory (Shawana Kemp) in hopes of winning the magical pair of guitars made by their father. When the play begins, Thunder has already defeated Jaguar Jr., a young upstart who has turned his back on the family blues legacy in favor of the more lucrative genre of rock and roll.
As the references to magical guitars and shape-shifting suggest, this is not naturalistic drama. Glory is blind, and the prize Thunder offers is the return of her eyesight. As an enticement, he temporarily restores her sight for a month, while she practices for the contest.
Nor is the contest without risk for Thunder. As played by Purry, Thunder oozes charm and moves with the sinuous grace of a snake, but if he loses, he will turn to stone -- a consequence already beginning to cripple him.
If Thunder is truly supernatural, however, why can't he prevent this hardening process? Aside from realizing that would spoil the plot, the explanation -- albeit stretchy -- appears to be that, as the text reiterates, Thunder is not the devil, merely an "imp," hence not all-powerful.
Love is central
He's also susceptible to human emotions, and love, as much as maintaining your legacy, is central to this play and this family. Weldon's easy-going Dregster has been trying to get Foy's upstanding Good Sister to marry him for years. In addition, Kemp's Glory, a magnetic portrayal, lost her sight chasing after one of her many bad romantic choices, and now her head has been turned by the most questionable choice of all -- Thunder.
Though the two women have the best voices, the entire cast conveys the family's rousing musical spirit, which is enhanced by an on-stage combo, as well as by Ken Roberson's choreography.
"Thunder Knocking on the Door" bears some similarities to a previous Glover play, "The Coming of the Hurricane," produced at Washington's Arena Stage last season. Like that play, which was about an ex-slave boxer during Reconstruction, "Thunder" has a historical context and culminates in a bout.
But unlike its angry predecessor, "Thunder" -- co-produced with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and the Dallas Theater Center -- is a softer, fable-like work, imbued with love.
A play about carrying on tradition, "Thunder Knocking on the Door" is itself part of the burgeoning tradition of African-American playwriting. Glover may strike a few jarring notes, but overall, he sings a song well worth listening to.
'Thunder Knocking on the Door'
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. Sundays and most Saturdays, and 1 p.m. Dec. 27, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22. (No performances Dec. 24-25.) Through Jan. 26
$ Call: (410) 481-6500
Pub Date: 12/20/96