REVIVAL The Resurrection of Son House has been in the works here at Geva for almost five years now. This electric story about a man’s journey to redemption through heavenly trials and singing the Blues has come a long, ever-evolving, loop-de-looping way from the script it started out as.
In the scant free time between rehearsals, I got the chance to sit down with the spectacular Keith Glover, who is not only REVIVAL’s playwright, but also serves as the production’s director and co-composer. It surprised me to find that Keith was initially wary about taking on this project. An agent approached him with an interest in his idea of creating—not a musical, per se—but a musically-jazzed play about the legendary Blues musician Son House.
However, Keith wasn’t interested in doing a complete biographical account of House’s life. He had something much bigger in mind, but there were a lot of working pieces he had to figure out how to put together, and then figure out how to make work together.
KEITH GLOVER [excerpts]: I had an idea. It was something that was raw and very simple … one of those things that the subject itself kind of leads you to the structure. It came together really quickly. It was extremely messy, but I wanted to give it the opportunity to be messy. I was like, I’m going to send you this draft, and I’ll tell you now, I fully expected them to freak out. (Laughing) And they probably did. But I knew that I had to be upfront about the scope of it, because I was trying things out musically, and in different forms… I knew that some of the stuff was very “experimental.” I said to them, hey, I’m letting you know that it’s going to be very messy, but I think you need to see where I’m going. That was what it was about—allowing the story to be messy, and sculpting a structure out of that. That brought in Jenni.
That is, Jenni Werner—our fabulous on-set dramaturg, who has been collaborating on the project since its commission in 2014.
JENNI WERNER [excerpt]: Son House’s life was expansive. He started out as a sharecropper/preacher/Bluesman in Mississippi, then moved to Rochester and worked a variety of jobs, including as a Pullman Porter—but he didn’t play very much music in Rochester until 1964. That’s when the third phase of his life started and when his musical career was revived. So telling the story of a life like that takes time. And one of the big challenges of this play has been figuring out which parts of the story can be told in one evening in the theatre.
KEITH GLOVER [excerpts]: I did a draft, and then another draft, and then another draft… Then I just went through the script and started thinking about what was jumping out at me about his life. And it was that he did things backwards. Usually somebody’s an evil, evil person and then they get saved. I felt that Son did it backwards. That was the obvious arc of it.
HK: Son House’s rough, guttural voice is one of the most formative in the Delta Blues genre. It’s a pretty big voice to fill—figuratively and literally. Did you have a specific actor in mind while writing the role?
KEITH GLOVER [excerpts]: For this kind of play, you have two things you have to decide between; if you’re going to give an impression, or the essence of who that character is. I was more interested in the essence of Son as opposed to an imitation. … I knew that, because of where Son goes emotionally, the script had to reflect that. I think that Cleavant [Derricks] checks those boxes that are really more interesting.
HK: What makes Cleavant such a perfect fit for this role?
KEITH GLOVER [excerpts]: I know there’s a lot of actors who would kind of think about playing it. Playing Son is not a real pleasure thing. Playing Buddy Holly, playing Elvis, playing Michael Jackson, that’s fun. [Son] It’s a depressing character. But you also have to feel the other side of it, because hopefully if you go there emotionally with Son, there is a catharsis that happens, and that’s what we’re trying to go for. That’s what the Blues is for. The thing with Cleavant, I knew who he was, but I didn’t know how amazing he was. I think he elevates material. Because he goes there emotionally he transcends everything, and you’re not going to really find that in everyone. … The moment he did the reading I called him and told him hey man, we’re getting ready to do something really different, and Cleavant said, “I’m with you, brother.” And then we said okay, let’s see where we go with this one.
HK: Have you written a lot of the songs that are in the play?
KEITH GLOVER [excerpts]: We have the balance. I said okay, we’ve got Son’s music. That presents its own challenge. Now what are we going to balance that with? I felt that Son obviously had the Blues covered. What is the other thing? It wasn’t gospel, because gospel has a thing in the Blues. I said I wanted to do the spiritual. [Billy Thompson and I] rewrote traditional spirituals to fit where we were going, or I wrote new spirituals that I would fit in. And so we wrote a bunch of tunes and we threw out stuff and stuff is coming back, and that was the way we worked it out.
REVIVAL is truly unlike anything that’s ever been done here at Geva. Needless to say, the approaching premiere has us all on the edge of our seats.
REVIVAL The Resurrection of Son House will have its world premiere on Geva’s Wilson Stage, May 2, 2019.