Lantern Theater Company resumes in-person performances later this year, but in the meantime, the company’s fall season launches with a pair of original digital offerings. The first, Me and the Devil, dramatizes one of the tallest tales in the history of American music.
Even those unschooled in the blues have probably heard the legend of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), often considered the greatest guitarist of all time. Regarded as a middling musician in his youth, he returned to the Mississippi Delta with a profound talent that defied all logic, leading some to believe he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his newfound prowess. His early death only bolstered this myth; he’s also an early member of the so-called “27 Club.”
Toe-to-toe with Satan
Embodied here by Broadway veteran Lawrence Stallings, Robert flatly rejects the supernatural connection. “The devil don’t make the blues,” he tells the audience at the juke joint where he performs, between swigs of whiskey that might have been poisoned. “Life make the blues.” Yet cocreators Steve H. Broadnax III and Charles Dumas take the Faustian bargain at face value, and the next hour unfolds as a court proceeding in the underworld, with Lucifer (voiced by Broadnax with subtle vocal modifications) acting as his own advocate.
Johnson argues that their agreement should be voided. The devil promised that in exchange for damnation, he would become the most famous and well-regarded bluesman alive. In life, at least, he never reached that pinnacle; a planned engagement at Carnegie Hall that would’ve brought him notoriety beyond the southern circuit was curtailed by his death. The few records he made before his passing had not yet become the classics they are today.
It’s a compelling premise, and the framing device of Johnson going toe-to-toe with Satan underlines both the ambition and foolhardiness that supposedly characterized him in life. But the play itself dips quickly into static territory as both defendant and magistrate call a host of witnesses that will testify to Johnson’s worthiness for salvation. After an exhilarating start that includes swinging music and Mephistophelian mischief, the action settles into bland courtroom drama.
Stallings plays every role here convincingly, differentiating his Johnson—charming, hot-headed, and convinced that fame is his birthright—from the scores of associates who either wish him well or ill. But the process is repetitive and slightly hokey. One of Johnson’s stepfathers regards him with warmth; another calls him worthless and lazy. A fellow musician remembers the youthful Robert as so untalented that audience members begged him to stop playing. A former lover still carries the torch even though she knows he took up with other women.
There are also moments that deserve greater focus. Johnson’s brother-in-law recounts how, in the musician’s prefame days, he lost his first wife and their baby to distress in childbirth. The trauma of this event clearly had a profound effect on Robert, one that could be used to justify why he’d sell his soul so eagerly, but it remains underexplored. Likewise, the details surrounding Johnson’s actual death, dispatched in a flash, feel cheaply handled.
Women don’t receive much focus, either. Although we hear from both of Johnson’s stepfathers, his mother, Julia Ann, is never seen. When Stallings plays Johnson’s jilted lover Willie Mae, he does so not only with pearls and a jaunty hat, but with overstated feminine caricature; it undercuts the potential poignancy of her narrative. It seems an odd choice not to use Ebony Pullum for this role; billed as “The Woman” in the credits, the Barrymore-winning actor’s sole function here is to hand Johnson a drink in the first scene.
Where anguish really lives
The physical production, under Broadnax’s direction, is solidly rendered, with particularly vivid lighting by Shon Causer that evokes the pulse of a juke joint and the heat of Hell. Tight closeups capture Johnson’s unique finger-picking style, recreated by guitar stand-in James Herb Smith. Stallings’s vocals are closer to Broadway than blues, though, and a bit more verisimilitude would have been welcome.
Bartered souls and shadowy tricksters hold an enduring lure in our collective imagination. Yet in its most successful moments, Me and the Devil suggests that the greatest anguish, the soul’s darkest night, lives inside each person, not in the fear of some fiery pit. I wish that existential bargain took center stage more often.
What, When, Where
Me and the Devil. By Steve H. Broadnax III and Charles Dumas, directed by Broadnax. Lantern Theater Company. Streaming on demand through October 17, 2021. $20 per single ticket or $35 for a digital season pass. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
Me and the Devil is closed-captioned.