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Borrowed Blues

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Mrs. Mackenzie's Beginner's Guide to the Blues

Stage Left Theatre

Bob Dylan cribbed the title of his new album, Love and Theft, from a book by Eric Lott about how white people loved African-American minstrelsy so much they took it for their own, blithely replacing black people with blackface. Committing theft while proclaiming love is a convenient way to acknowledge debt--in Dylan's case, to the music of African-Americans and poor southern whites--without actually having to return the loot.

Mrs. Mackenzie's Beginner's Guide to the Blues likewise recognizes the issue of cultural appropriation, the intertwining of love and theft, while engaging in it itself. Now receiving its Chicago premiere in Jessi D. Hill's exceptional production at Stage Left, the play is about a white high school music teacher in Minnesota who falls in love with one of her white students in part because they share a passion for Delta blues. This is a form not merely originating with black people but still claimed by them. (At the start of Black Ensemble Theater's Muddy Waters (The Hoochie-Coochie Man), the chorus sings, "We made the blues, it belongs to us.") Though playwrights Patty Lynch and Kent Stephens glance in the direction of the blues' source--the enslavement of African-Americans--they don't take a full look; like others, they're content to let the tropes of one culture serve the purposes of another.

Lynch and Stephens do show how the adoption of blues music by an unhappily married woman from "a town in Wisconsin named after a square dance move" transforms both the music and its myths. Though Suzanne Mackenzie is determined to teach the original blues, she undermines her own effort by identifying these songs as anthems for the hard times, losses, and imprisonments all people experience.

The fact that music and its meaning can be altered is not in itself tragic. What's potentially tragic is the fact that people can't change, or at least not simply by choosing a new style. In their comedy-drama with music, Lynch and Stephens seem exquisitely sensitive to this: Suzanne's protege Tyler describes himself as the son of a "meat packer and a checkout girl" even though his father does research at Hormel and his stepmother is a middle manager at Target. What makes middle-class people adopt the archetypes and claims of the working class? Perhaps the same impulse that makes white people think they can identify with the blues on every level: the futile search for one's own authenticity in someone else's life.

Lynch and Stephens brilliantly interweave Suzanne's standard identity crisis--facing the far side of 30, she tries to reinvent herself as the groupie of a bad-boy artist she herself invents--with the crisis of identity experienced by anyone moved by an art form whose origins are alien to her own. Suzanne (the extraordinary Jenny McKnight) repeatedly refers to her dream of running away with Tyler as "going down the river" and claims that she can be satisfied with her constrained life only because the Mississippi is within driving distance. Though Lynch and Stephens never refer to Mark Twain's classic, Suzanne's is the river of Huck Finn, the embodiment of freedom and possibility, and she completely overlooks the fact that for Jim "going down the river" meant a return to slavery. These playwrights are smart enough to see the difference and exploit the metaphor of slavery--Tyler, who fears Suzanne's dream of escape, ultimately "breaks free" of it--but don't acknowledge that their appropriation diminishes the exploitation of African-Americans. Some things are simply ineligible for metaphor duty, too big and unique to serve as symbols for others; Lynch and Stephens don't allude even once to the actual experiences of African-Americans, let alone to the different meanings blacks might attach to the play's issues of education, motherhood, and sexual transgression.

Admittedly the script is already chock-full. The protagonist's name comes from Jean Rhys's seminal feminist work After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie; like her namesake, Suzanne strikes out for freedom and finds herself merely adrift--going downriver, all right, but without direction. And the playwrights layer on the plots. In the central drama Suzanne, who's tutoring Tyler in blues guitar, seduces him (or they fall in love, depending on whom you ask and when); they're discovered; she's arrested; and he's sent to the kind of counseling that would do a Maoist reeducation camp proud. In comic counterpoint are blow-dried TV reporter Rich Gavin (Jesse Weaver), who does a Hard Copy-style expose of the affair and the wicked music that inspired it ("performed by leering old men with peculiar names"), and Phillip Shakeshaft, PhD (Weaver again), who can't cure his own dog of barking but tries to cure Tyler of his love. Various subplots are fueled by Tyler's struggles at home and school and his efforts to make it on the blues scene and Suzanne's impatience with her son, disappointment in her husband, and fury at her mother (Karen McKie--as versatile as Weaver, she also plays Tyler's stepmother and a teacher envious of Suzanne, not to mention the unseen dog and unseen son).

Remarkably, only one scene seems superfluous--an on-air battle between the smarmy reporter and his feminist guest--and even that one's fun. Despite all the crosscurrents, the play never feels cluttered, and its time-fractured structure is complex without being confusing. Mrs. Mackenzie is satisfying intellectually and emotionally, so to ask for a lesson on race relations seems a bit much--yet there's something fundamentally wrong with ignoring the makers of the music at the play's heart. That lack of acknowledgment crosses the line from love into theft--and everything that's right about the play suggests the playwrights can also handle this one additional demand.

Meanwhile, they can thank Stage Left for a flawless production. Under Dan Slyman's music direction, Tim Gittings, Dan Moran, and Dan Waring thoroughly defeat the notion that only black people can sing the blues. Geoff Rice as Tyler makes a persuasive musical transition from tentative early efforts to mature work as a bluesman. And McKnight's understated a cappella solos are the show's most moving moments.

McKie and Weaver play all the supporting roles so deftly that it's a surprise to see only four people take bows, and Rice handles the tough role of Tyler very well. Hill's direction is a model of clarity and pacing. But McKnight is the standout, combining exceptional physical grace with intensity, clarity, and honesty in a role that could have been extremely unsympathetic, even repellent. See McKnight now, so you can say you saw her when.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.

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