“Thunder Knocking on the Door,” the stirring blues fable that features the music of Grammy-winning bluesman Keb’ Mo’ and Anderson Edwards, is being staged by Ten Thousand Things Theater Company in the Twin Cities for the first time since being produced at the Guthrie Theater in 1998. That version was incomplete, according to playwright Keith Glover, because he gained insights into his characters as he developed the play across the country.
The “bluesical,” which features a guitar duel between a blind songstress who wants to regain her sight and the trickster title character Marvell Thunder, was originally directed by Marion McClinton, the Tony nominee who died on Thanksgiving at 65.
Now Marcela Lorca, who worked as an assistant choreographer on the large-scale Guthrie production, is taking an elemental approach that has the title character at a human scale.
“What I’m discovering is that there is so much humanity and so many questions about internal transformation in the show,” Lorca said. “Everyone has their own crossroads when they butt up against the hardest things. How are they going to overcome those things? What inspiration, courage, revelation are they going to call on that allows them to fulfill their purpose as human beings?”
Those questions are essential ones, said playwright Glover, who talked about a show that celebrates America’s foundational music.
Q: What’s “Thunder” really about?
A: I had the great fortune to work with [director] George Wolfe, and he said that when you’re starting something, you have to be able to say it in one sentence. “Thunder” is a fairy tale in the key of G.
Q: Isn’t this a retelling of the Robert Johnson story of meeting the devil at the crossroads and making some sort of Faustian bargain?
A: Nope. The hardest thing with this show is getting people to come in without preconceptions of a lot of things that they associate with the blues.
Q: You wrote this as a commission from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where it premiered in 1996 and near where you were born. Was the play a reason to go home?
A: Yes. Before “Thunder,” I had written two plays that got produced, and they were very dark. Young black playwright who wants to depress everybody — that was me. It was funny because I was happy and in a good place. My wife was pregnant. The [Alabama Shakespeare Festival] residency put me around my grandmother and aunts and everybody. I had also reconnected with the music, which is the soundtrack of my childhood. But it wasn’t sad blues, not the Delta hard stuff. It was uplifting blues. Magic Sam and Buddy Guy. When I was talking to my grandmother, who saw Son House in Alabama, she said, “Keith, we danced.” For the blues for her is good-time music. All the stuff that black people were dealing with from the ’30s to the ’60s — there was a lot to sing the blues about. But as the son of a guitar player and a guitar player myself, I can tell you, the music was joyous.
A: It was about the light that came out of the music. It wasn’t a depressing thing but an electric thing. I had the great fortune of getting with Keb’, who’s originally from Compton [Calif.]. It wasn’t a selling out of the music to not make it sad. If you were feeling sad, and went into a number, it made you feel better. You sang the blues to make you feel better.
Q: Back to making deals with the devil.
A: I was in Alabama and went and saw one of these old Alabama cats who told me that Robert [Johnson] at first couldn’t really play guitar. He went to Alabama and learned this tuning and came back lighting up the world. It was just a tuning, the crossroad tuning, that Olu Dara, who was the music director for our first production, taught everybody. We had a guitar player, Bruce Johnson, who had played with Sun Ra and all these jazz cats. I saw him a couple of years after he’d been in the show, and he said, “Man, my guitar never played right after that.” He had to put it down. The crossroads for most of us musicians was an embracing of African tonality. We were leaving Western music and exploring open tunings that were more African. The moment, musically, you start going into those dominant chords, that’s immediately considered the devil. So, if Robert is playing that ..., they’re gonna go, “He done sold his soul to the devil.”
Q: What revisions did you make since it was at the Guthrie?
A: We didn’t have the biggest moment in the play for I was not in a place to write it. I was a young, inexperienced playwright who didn’t know that the play wasn’t finished. Right after the Guthrie, I remember Ed Stern, who’s a good friend, telling me that everybody wants something in the play. Did they get what they want? And I was like, that’s true for everybody but Jaguar. I was like, “ ... He wants to sing with his father.” I wrote that in the next day.
Q: Tell us about your collaboration with Keb’ Mo’.
A: A large part of the heart of “Thunder” comes from Keb’ Mo’. I’m just hitchhiking. He wasn’t free when I started working on it, so I would put in standards, or songs I wrote. And Keb’ always rewrote stuff. One time he had to go and do a movie. I went to Chicago and wrote two, three songs with [co-composer] Anderson. Then, Kevin came back and knocks on the door, saying, “You know that song, ‘See Through Me,’ I rewrote it.” ... I listen to it and it’s brilliant. The best song wins.
Q: Is there a lesson in the story for you as an artist?
A: These things are gifts. You’re not in control. And you’ve got to be open to what you don’t know. I’m totally open to extreme [interpretations]. There are no mistakes. The show is bigger than you. The gift is bigger than you. I don’t come in on a chariot.
Q: I know that Robert Johnson means a lot to you. Did you ever meet his descendants?
A: I was in Cleveland and Robert Lockwood, Robert Johnson’s stepson, was like, “Who’s this Keith Glover to write a play without calling me?” And I was like, “OK, gotta get out of here.”
Q: You didn’t talk with him?
A: Nope. I regret that. That was my ego and hubris. I was young, immature and foolish. I will forever regret that. I get it now. I did owe him a thing. Keb’ always used to tell me when we would go to see B.B. or Buddy Guy or Max Roach, “You gotta be with somebody who’s been doing something for 50, 60, 70 years. You just need to be near the source of that light.” I get that now.