Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Bill Harris's Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil is a play inspired by the legend surrounding the historical blues musician Robert Johnson. According to the legend, Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads in the Deep South and sold his soul in exchange for unparalleled guitar-playing skills. Harris's play is set in 1938, the year the real Johnson died. Harris's character Robert Johnson, who is being pursued by a white man named Kimbrough, finds himself at a "jook joint" owned and operated by a woman named Georgia. ("Jook joint" is the term used to describe an African American bar where music, dancing, and gambling are the primary attractions. Jook joints first arose in the South during the late 1800s.) Johnson soon becomes the object of Georgia's affection, while Kimbrough confesses his desire to hear Johnson's story about the deal he made with the devil. By the play's end, Johnson has finally told his story, revealing to Kimbrough, and the others, that he tricked the devil at the crossroads, realizing as he played that he had no need of the devil's bargain after all. Johnson, however, is poisoned by Georgia's estranged husband. After Johnson's death, Kimbrough asserts that Johnson did in fact sell his soul to Satan, and that is the sole reason that Johnson was able to play guitar with such skill, thereby rejecting Johnson's own accounting of the alleged incident.
Originally staged in 1993 in New York's New Federal Theatre, Harris's play is available in the 1995 anthology The National Black Drama Anthology: Page 171 | Top of Article Eleven Plays from America's Leading African American Theaters, edited by Woodie King, Jr., and published by Applause Theatre Books.
Content Advisory Note: Harris's play contains some sexuality and violence that may be deemed objectionable for middle-grade readers.
Little has been published about Harris's life. He was born in 1941 in Anniston,Alabama, and raised in Detroit, Michigan, from the age of two. After attending Cass Technological High School as a teen, Harris later went on to study at Wayne State University. Harris received both his bachelor of art and master of art degrees (his master's in 1977) from Wayne State University. He has written plays, poems, and literary criticism. In the 1980s, Harris worked as the Production Coordinator for Jazzmobile, a non-profit organization providing free jazz concerts in New York City, and for the New Federal Theatre in New York. Three of his own plays were staged during his time in New York, including Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil in 1993, as well as Stories about the Old Days (first staged in 1986 and published in 1990), and Every Goodbye Ain't Gone (first staged in 1984 at the Colonnades Theater Lab and published in 1989 in New Plays for the Black Theatre, ed. Woodie King, Jr.). Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil was staged at the New Federal Theatre and directed by Woodie King, Jr. After returning to Detroit, Harris served as the Chief Curator at Detroit's Museum of African American History. Following his work as curator, Harris began working first as an associate professor, then as a professor of English at Detroit's Wayne State University. He has been awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Writer-in-Residence Grant for a comedic drama about jazz, titled Coda (published in 1990, with the drama Riffs as Riffs and Coda). Other awards include a Theatre Communications Collaboration Grant for Artists and the Distinguished Arts Achievement Award from Wayne State University.
In the prologue to Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, two vignettes (brief scenes) play out. In the first, which the stage directions inform us takes place in 1937 in Texas,Robert Johnson is singing in a hotel room that has been converted into a recording studio. The voice of a recording engineer instructs Page 172 | Top of Article Johnson, who does not respond but sings when he is instructed to. In the second vignette, the blind piano player, Stokes, is smoking a cigarette in Georgia's bar, "Georgia Mayberry's Colored Jook Joint," in 1938. Stokes speaks to the audience, saying that he will reveal what happened when Robert Johnson died.
Act 1, Scene 1
The first scene of the play begins with Georgia and Stokes discussing the weather and how much food Georgia needs to have prepared at the bar. When Georgia spies a man walking toward the bar, she and Stokes speculate on who it might be and what he might want. Robert Johnson enters and asks if the Greyhound bus stops at the nearby crossroads. Having already observed that he is attractive, well-dressed, and carrying a guitar, Georgia begins to flirt with Robert, who returns her interest. Robert retires to a room upstairs. In an aside (a speech delivered not to the other characters, but only to the audience), Georgia mentions her husband, a drunk who has run off, and her attraction to Robert. Recalling the day Robert arrived, Georgia mentions the arrival of a white man. Stokes also delivers an aside, in which he recalls the white man who visited Georgia's bar. The asides are removed from the linear development of the play and set the stage for the action to come. When the white man (Kimbrough) arrives, he explains to Georgia and Stokes that he is looking for someone. Knowing it is Johnson the man is seeking, Georgia and Stokes attempt to protect Johnson—they are suspicious of Kimbrough's desire to see him—by deflecting his questions with wit, humor, and general evasiveness. Kimbrough explains who Johnson is, revealing the myth that he sold his soul to the devil. Stokes and Georgia continue toying with Kimbrough, launching into a discussion about the many names an African American person can have. The exchange is intended to be humorous to them, and presumably to the audience, but to further frustrate Kimbrough, which it does. Hearing thunder, and rain, Georgia retires upstairs, suggesting to Stokes, and in an aside to the audience, that she is going to be with Robert.
Act 1, Scene 2
The second scene opens in Georgia's bedroom, where Robert is sitting on the bed, playing the guitar, when Georgia enters. Georgia tells Robert about Kimbrough, and Robert reveals that he is in fact the blues musician Kimbrough is seeking. After acknowledging that she already knew who Robert was, Georgia tells him how her husband smashed all her records of Robert's music. The discussion turns again to Kimbrough and how relentlessly he has pursued Robert, although Robert does not know why he has been followed. Georgia suggests that Kimbrough is interested in Robert because of the alleged deal he made with the devil. In reply, Robert tells her he she should not listen to what white people say, and then recounts his own experience in learning how to play the guitar, learning how to play the blues. He shares his frustration at Kimbrough's persistence, and Georgia soothes him, then joins him in bed.
Meanwhile, Kimbrough and Stokes are talking in the bar. They discuss Robert's music, and Kimbrough reveals some of his own past. Kimbrough tells Stokes of a large inheritance he has received, which enables him to live a leisurely life, and to teach English at a private women's college, as he has no skills in business to make a living any other way. Kimbrough teaches Shakespeare and makes repeated references to Shakespeare's plays. He wonders how Robert, as (he presumes) an uneducated black man can use his music to touch on the same universal themes (such as lost innocence, man's fall from grace, the need to atone for one's sins) explored in the Bible and by Shakespeare. Kimbrough compares Robert to the Greek poet-god Orpheus. Stokes informs Kimbrough that he is getting more lost the longer he looks for Robert. The conversation turns to Stokes's grandmother, Ma Ruth, who was a slave, and to Kimbrough's grandfather. As the two recollect the death of their grandparents, Lem, Georgia's husband, enters. He talks about how he had left to find work and had been employed on a government building project. The labor, he says, was worse than slavery. Kimbrough initially takes Lem to be Robert, and finding out that he is not the bluesman, proceeds to question him about Johnson. Stokes encourages Lem to leave, suggesting that Georgia will not want to see him, but Lem refuses. Lem tells the audience in an aside that some believe he poisoned Robert Johnson, but he denies it. In this aside, Lem also reveals his knowledge of and anger regarding the connection between Georgia and Robert. Comparing Kimbrough's search for Robert to trying to catch a squirrel (Robert) who is busy looking for a nut, Stokes tells Kimbrough that he has Page 173 | Top of Article been looking for Robert the wrong way. The implication is that Robert, upstairs with Georgia, has found what he has been looking for.
Act 1, Scene 3
In the final scene of act 1, Robert, in Georgia's room, wakes from a restless sleep determined to confront Kimbrough. He is tired of being pursued. Georgia assures him that they will find a way to prevent Kimbrough from following Robert any more.
Act 2, Scene 1
Back in the bar, Kimbrough expresses his frustration at being tricked, being the object of the joke of everyone in the bar, being duped by Stokes, Georgia, Lem, and all the "servile and indifferent colored men / … and women" he has met as he has followed Kimbrough. He also is tired, he says "of poor whites," and of the South all together. He tells Stokes he plans on leaving on the Greyhound the next day, but insists that he will see Robert first. Certain that Stokes knows more than he is letting on, Kimbrough (using a racial slur about Robert) threatens to inform authorities that an African American who has committed horrible crimes is "on the loose." Stokes informs Kimbrough that if, upon finding Robert, Kimbrough only sees what he wants to, his search will have been fruitless anyway. Georgia appears. Not surprised to see Lem, she tells him that it is too late for him to come back to her. He insists that he still has feelings for her, that he left for the sake of work, and that it was a horrible experience, and so he returned. In the midst of their argument, Robert enters. Robert and Lem discuss Georgia. Lem is outraged, feeling usurped by Robert. Lem tells both Georgia and Kimbrough that Robert is not special, that he is just like every other bluesman. Lem tells the audience that if Robert had been in league with the devil, it did him no good as a guitar player, and it certainly did not prevent him from howling in misery when he was poisoned.
Kimbrough now begins to question Robert, and Robert, in turn, questions Kimbrough about why has been following him. As the two speak, Kimbrough asks how Robert is able to write so insightfully about "conflicts / that are central to the literature / of all civilization." Meanwhile, Lem speaks to the audience, complaining that Robert has no right to disparage him in front of his woman and a white man. According to the stage directions, he is at this time poisoning Robert's whiskey. Robert and Kimbrough continue to talk, with Robert playing the guitar throughout the conversation. Lem interrupts periodically, and he and Robert exchange insults. Finally, Robert consents to tell Kimbrough and the others the story of how he faced Satan at the crossroads. He reveals that out of curiosity, he went to the crossroads where he was told he would find Satan. He waited, he says, and finally the devil arrived, but he "was just a ordinary white man in a suit and tie." Robert explains that he tricked the devil. By playing what he knew to be the truth and by digging deeper into his soul and his ancestry, he discovered that the music became stronger and stronger, and the devil could call "none of it a lie!" When the devil played, Robert says, he just watched him and learned all his tricks. But the devil bestowed on him no special gifts for which he had to exchange his soul. Lem accuses him of lying, and Georgia argues with Lem. Meanwhile, Robert has been sipping the drink Lem has prepared. Robert encourages Kimbrough to face his own demons, as he himself has done. Kimbrough reveals that his family had been slaveholders, and that is where their fortune, his inheritance, has stemmed from. He reveals his own tormented feelings about his past. Robert attempts to guide him through confronting his feelings about his family, but Kimbrough refuses, instead clinging to his own racism. Johnson suddenly doubles over in pain and Lem reveals the rat poison he put in Robert's drink. He tells Georgia that he killed Robert so that he, Lem, could be with her. Georgia tells him to leave, arguing that she did not ask him to commit such an act on her behalf. Robert gasps his last breath.
The Epilogue reveals Kimbrough, lecturing, espousing the myth that Robert denied: that in an evil pact, he sold his soul to Satan. In exchange, the devil gave Robert "unnatural insights and / musical mastery."
Georgia operates the jook joint in which the play takes place. She is described as being in her late thirties or early forties. By virtue of her owning Page 174 | Top of Article her own bar as an African American woman in the 1930s, her strength and independence are established immediately. Her exchanges with Stokes, the piano player, show her to be intelligent and funny. She frankly expresses her physical attraction to Robert, and is not afraid to go after what she wants. Georgia, after revealing that her husband, Lem, could be mean and petty, shows him no kindness or mercy when he returns. Horrified that Lem admits to killing Robert to be with her, she tells him to leave, to take his soul "somewhere it can't be found."
Robert Johnson is a blues singer in his mid-twenties. His character is based on a real-life figure by the same name who died in 1938 at the age of twenty-seven. The cause of death is believed to have been poisoning. In Harris's fictionalized account of Robert's last day, the playwright depicts a Robert who is confident but soft-spoken. Tired of running from Kimbrough, Robert knows he must finally confront him. The reasons he has not yet done so are only alluded to and appear to stem from the racial tension in the American South of the 1930s. At the heart of the play is Robert's revelation of what really happened at the crossroads, where he was believed to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unmatched skill as a blues guitarist. What he admits, however, is that whatever his intentions were in seeking out Satan that day, he walked away with his soul intact, having tricked the devil (who appears to Robert as a white man in a suit) rather than traded his soul for talent. He speaks of playing the truth, his own, and that of a people sold into slavery. The devil, he says, could not deny the truth of what he had played, nor could he best Robert. As Robert watches the Devil's attempt to outplay him, he learns new skills, just as he admits to learning from other guitarists. From this exchange, he stresses, he became an unbeatable guitar player. Robert goes on to urge Kimbrough to seek his own truth, to admit that what he has been seeking has little to do with Robert or the blues, and more to do with the way Kimbrough is haunted by his own past. Kimbrough, however, refuses to listen and fades from the scene as Robert dies.
Kimbrough is a professor of English from New England, employed at a private girls' college. He is the play's only white character and the instigator, along with Lem, of much of the play's tension. Having desperately searched for Robert Johnson, he is frustrated by the evasions of Stokes and Georgia when he questions them about the bluesman. With an increasing sense of isolation and annoyance at being the butt of their jokes, Kimbrough expresses his disgust with the South in general and with all those in it, African Americans and poor whites together, who he feels have thwarted his quest. Unlike the other characters in the play, Kimbrough speaks in blank verse (structured by unrhymed poetry), and he makes repeated references to the works of Shakespeare. Kimbrough's habit of flaunting his status as one of the East Coast academic elite, combined with the derogatory comments and racial insults he makes about southern African Americans in general, and the other characters in the play in particular, demonstrate the professor's arrogance, ignorance, and overall bad judgment: he certainly will not get any of the information he seeks by insulting those he questions. Kimbrough's shortcomings are further revealed in the play's epilogue, when he perpetuates the myth about Robert Johnson that he knows to be untrue. Throughout the play, despite the few moments in which Robert attempts to help him break free of his own past, Kimbrough remains unchanged, insisting on a version of Robert Johnson and his music that fits into his own worldview.
Lem is Georgia's husband, although the pair have been separated since Lem sought employment at a government-sponsored work program involving levee building. Despite the fact that he was being paid to work, he feels that he was driven harder than a slave. He consequently returns to his wife, who has no interest in taking him back. Lem brings with him all the frustration and anger at having attempted to find work, only to be mistreated, and upon his return, he suspects that his wife has been unfaithful. From Lem's perspective, he has been sorely used and abused first by his bosses on the government job, and then by his wife. Yet his response—poisoning Robert—is clearly unjustified. When Robert dies, Lem expresses no remorse. Rather, he tells Georgia that he killed Robert for her, so that she could now be with him. Georgia, however, wants nothing to do with her husband any longer, and, rejected, he leaves. During the play, in an aside to the audience in which Lem speaks as though the time during which the events of the play take place have already passed, he claims be innocent of the crime of poisoning Robert.
Stokes is the blind piano player at Georgia's joint. In the listing of characters preceding the play, he is described as "a seer." As the play opens, he predicts the arrival of strangers, and of rain, and when Georgia scoffs at him, he asserts that he received such intuitive gifts from his grandmother. Despite her initial teasing, Georgia seems to place some stock in Stokes's intuitions, believing the gut reactions he expresses about the other characters in the play. In addition to being able to sense things about people, he is a skillful riddler, offering disguised information to Kimbrough about Robert, but telling him nothing directly. With Georgia, Stokes attempts a number of times to throw Kimbrough off Robert's trail. Stokes provides information to Kimbrough about African oral traditions and about his own family's history as slaves, inspiring Kimbrough to share personal information about himself and his own family. Stokes is additionally shown to be protective of Georgia, and, by extension, Robert, whom Georgia cares for. He prevents Lem from revealing too much about Georgia or her knowledge of Robert's music when Kimbrough is questioning Lem. As Robert dies, it is Stokes who comforts him and encourages him to not fight his inevitable death.
The creation of the myth of Robert Johnson functions as a driving force in Harris's Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil. It is Kimbrough's pursuit of Robert, and Kimbrough's desire to verify the myth that has already grown up around Robert, that serves as the play's primary conflict. Robert is weary of Kimbrough's pursuit, and Georgia and Stokes, who have some inkling of who Robert is, are driven by their motivation to protect Robert's identity from Kimbrough. Lem is as much affronted by the fact that another man has been with his wife as he is that it is this man in particular, Robert Johnson, who has been with his wife. Johnson has the reputation of being able, thanks to the gifts the devil bestowed on him, to make women desire him. Harris allows Robert to tell his own story in the play, to provide his own version of his own myth. But as Patricia R. Schroeder maintains in her 2004 book Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture, Harris himself, in the very writing of the play, in giving Johnson his own voice, reshapes the myth of Robert Johnson.
Significantly, Harris, through his character of Robert Johnson, re-creates the Johnson myth in such a way as to transform the myth but retain some of the original elements of the myth. As the story goes, Johnson traded his soul to the devil for unmatched skills on the blues guitar. Other gifts are rumored to have been part of the deal: insights into human nature, the ability to arouse desire in women. As Harris's Johnson tells it, he tricked the devil, but he did so without selling his soul. Harris allows that Johnson's skill was his own, not a supernatural gift from an evil force, a fact that the character of Kimbrough could not accept. Kimbrough was unwilling to believe that an uneducated African American blues player could through his music speak to the universal themes of human existence explored by the literary greats such as Shakespeare. However, Harris, although he depicts the devil as a white man in a suit, suggests that this was the way the devil appeared to Robert Johnson. While this says a lot about the way African Americans in the South in the 1930s perceived white men, it also allows the supernatural element to remain. Harris seems to suggest that Robert's devil was the embodiment of the evil that whites have perpetrated against African Americans. As Johnson tells it in Harris's play, though, the devil is still the devil, despite his white human form. Harris does not allow the myth of an exchange between Johnson and the devil to be completely dismantled, but he removes from it the powerful element that robs Johnson of natural ability.
In Harris's play, the African American characters are unanimously suspicious of the white character's intentions, while the white character paints all of the southern African American he meets with the same racist brush. Much of the racial tension is due to the play's setting in the South during the 1930s, at the when time Jim Crow laws ensured that African Americans were discriminated against and were set apart from their white counterparts (see Historical Context). While this accounts to a large degree for the suspicions of Georgia, Stokes, Lem, and Robert, Kimbrough comes to the South from an elite East Coast background, and bearing with him his own racial prejudices. Kimbrough admits that he has felt a connection to Robert's blues since his grandfather's death before he explains own relatives were slaveholders, and that he refused to
be with his slaveholding grandfather when he died. He seems haunted by guilt about his family's actions, and he has conflicted feelings about not being in the room with his grandfather when he died. Kimbrough is just as conflicted about his powerful response to the blues. When Robert urges him to acknowledge the truth—Kimbrough's own truth about his fears, and the truth about the blues being a genuine, complex, and meaningful expression of human emotion—Kimbrough's response is that he cannot stop being the "coward" and "hypocrite" that Robert accuses him of being. He cannot because he fears the blues are really just "[racial slur] mumbo jumbo." He clings to his racism, his fear, and refuses to take any responsibility for his feelings. The world, he asserts, is "not my concoction or my fault."
The African American characters in Harris's Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil speak in an easy, conversational manner in the vernacular (the language or dialect of a particular region) of the rural American South of the 1930s. Their discourse includes references to African folklore (the trickster figure of the Signifying Monkey) and to African American folklore (another trickster figure, Br'er Rabbit). Such allusions are made when one character wittily insults or outsmarts another, or both, as when Stokes, knowing that Robert is upstairs, compares Robert to a fox, duped in a Br'er Rabbit story. Similarly, Stokes, possessing knowledge Lem does not have about Robert and Georgia, insults Lemby hinting at the way he is being cuckolded (that is, cheated on by Georgia, with Robert). In a similar way, Georgia and Stokes speak comfortably with one another, jesting at Kimbrough's expense, knowing how close Kimbrough really is to the man he is seeking. When Kimbrough asks the two about a man named Robert Johnson, they leisurely spend a considerable amount of time telling humorous stories about individuals with a variety of unusual names. Kimbrough becomes increasingly frustrated, and Georgia and Stokes succeed in reminding Kimbrough that he is a stranger, Page 178 | Top of Article alone, and they are members of a separate community, one in which Kimbrough is powerless to decipher their private humor and meaning.
Kimbrough sets himself up to be treated as an outsider, however. Through his demeanor, actions, and speech he isolates himself from the African American community he enters. Immediately upon setting foot in Georgia's jook joint, he draws attention to himself as a white man from the Northeast who is well educated and who demands answers to his questions. His own speech sets him distinctly apart from the other characters in the play as well. Not only does he make repeated references to Shakespeare that stand in sharp contrast to the cultural allusions made by Stokes and Georgia, but he speaks in blank verse. Blank verse is poetry that contains a regular metrical pattern, but no rhyme. It often features iambic pentameter, like many of the speeches in the Shakespearean plays so favored by Kimbrough. (Iambic pentameter is a type of metrical structure in poetry. Meter is a pattern of accented and unaccented syllables within a line of poetry. A line of verse written in iambic pentameter is one in which there are five accented syllables in the line, each preceded by an unaccented syllable. Each set of unaccented and accented syllables is referred to as a metrical foot.) Kimbrough's distinctively different speeches, and the fact that his portions of conversation often come off as academic lectures, in no way aid him in gathering information about Johnson. In contrast to the relaxed speech of the other characters, Kimbrough presents himself as formal, academic, and superior.
Race Relations in the South in the 1930s
In Harris's Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, Lem refers to Jim Crow when he describes working on a government-sponsored works program job to be more brutal than anything related to Jim Crow laws. What Lem speaks of is the institutionalized segregation and the legal condoning of the social mindset of white superiority that occurred during this period. The term "Jim Crow" derived from the name of a character in a "minstrel show," or traveling performance troupe, featuring song, dance, and comedy. The Jim Crow character, according to Ferris State University sociology professor David Pilgrim, was initially created by a white performer named Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice. Rice applied blackface makeup and created the Jim Crow character in the 1830s; the character embodied all the most offensive stereotypes assigned to those Africans in the United States who could not yet be called Americans, as most of them were slaves during this pre-Civil War time period. The minstrel shows such as those in which Rice performed peaked in popularity by the 1870s, when the term Jim Crow began to be viewed as a racial slur. As laws that discriminated against African Americans began to be passed in the late 1870s, they began to be called Jim Crow laws. The laws were based on the notion that whites were superior to African Americans in terms of intellectual ability and moral behavior. As Pilgrim explains, the fear at the root of the Jim Crow laws was that if African Americans were treated by whites as social equals, interracial sexual relationships would result, and the resulting mixed race would be the downfall of America. Violence was frequently used to enforce Jim Crow laws. Beatings and lynchings were common. Not only did the laws dictate that African Americans and white Americans could not eat together or sit near each other on public transportation, but anything that intimated social equality was understood by the social etiquette of the day to be off limits. An African American man, for example, could not offer to shake hands with a white man, nor was a white man ever introduced to an African American man. African Americans were introduced to whites, but never using a courtesy title such as "Mr." or "Mrs." or "Miss." Only whites were allowed such titles; African Americans were introduced by their first name alone. The segregation laws became more pervasive, and virtually all possible interactions between the two races were regulated. African Americans were relegated to separate, usually inferior, facilities, including drinking fountains, public restrooms, hospitals, schools, and prisons. While the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (1868 and 1870) gave African Americans citizenship and the right to vote and prohibited states from denying that right, other laws were created by the states to prevent African Americans from voting. Poll taxes were instituted in some states, as were literacy tests. A poll tax was a fee that a person had to pay in order to be allowed to vote in a national election. Such taxes essentially meant
that poor people, which included a large number of African Americans, could not vote. Poll taxes were finally banned in 1964 by the Twenty-fourth Amendment. Race riots in major cities (for example, in Detroit in 1943 and again in 1967) well into the twentieth century attest to the fact that the institutionalized dehumanization of African Americans would not be tolerated indefinitely.
Given this social structure, any interactions between African Americans and white Americans during this time period were bound to be fraught with tension, suspicion, and fear. In Harris's play, the African American characters Stokes and Georgia do their best to protect Robert, though they know little about him except that he is being followed by a white man. Robert, who knows he has done nothing wrong, is fearful and agitated by being so pursued. Yet given the atmosphere instituted by Jim Crow laws, it is not surprising that he avoided confronting Kimbrough for as long as possible.
The Great Depression
Harris's play takes place during the Great Depression, which lasted roughly a decade in America, from 1929 to the outbreak of World War II, which began in Europe in 1939. The official onset is often marked as the great stock market crash on "Black Thursday," October 24, 1929. The downward economic spiral that followed began with the massive bank failures that resulted after the stock market plummeted. Without the necessary cash flow, businesses closed, and unemployment rose dramatically. President Herbert Hoover attempted to address countless crises but with little success. In 1932 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president. After taking office in 1933, he immediately began instituting measures designed to restore the banks' solvency and to get Americans working again by creating new jobs. He passed measures such as the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, which stabilized the banking system through federal government loans provided by Roosevelt's Reconstruction Finance Corporation. While Hoover had urged Americans to be self-reliant and had hoped local charities would provide for the needs of the newly homeless and hungry in their own communities, Roosevelt took another approach, establishing the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which provided communities with funding to offer allotments of food, rent money, coal, and heating oil to Americans in need. Numerous public works programs were also instituted. The Civil Works Administration was created to employ Americans in the construction and repair of highways, bridges, and public buildings such as schools, hospitals, and airports. Another such organization was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided funding for unemployed young men to work in national forests, parks, and other public lands owned by the federal government. All such programs were part of what was called the "New Deal," and when Roosevelt was re-elected, he instituted a "Second New Deal." In 1935, Roosevelt signed legislation to provide another broad work-relief organization, the Works Progress Administration (or WPA). In Harris's play, the character of Lem, seeking employment, finds it with a government-sponsored WPA position, fortifying levees. Lem finds the position to be worse than slavery, and modern sources concede that the pay for WPA jobs was minimal, but better, it was argued, than poverty and starvation. According to T. H. Watkins's The Great Depression: America in the 1930s, the average WPA salary was about forty-one dollars per month. When America entered World War II in 1941, the increased manufacturing needs generated by participation in the war eventually helped return the American economy to prosperity. Roosevelt, having served two terms in office and having guided the nation through the Depression, was elected at the onset of the war for an unprecedented third term in office.
Critical assessments of Harris's Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil are not numerous to date. Among the fullest examinations of his play is Patricia R. Schroeder's study in the 1989 Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture. In this exploration of the way Harris's play contributes to the re-creation of the mythology surrounding Johnson, Schroeder maintains that the work "offers an artistic deconstruction of the Robert Johnson myth because it depicts the myth being created." Schroeder demonstrates the way Harris presents a world divided: between African Americans and white Americans, between the pragmatic realism of the African American characters and the often dangerous romanticism epitomized by Kimbrough, and, within African American culture, between African influences and Western
influences. Other critical responses to the play take the form of theater reviews. When the play opened in New York in 1993 under the direction of Woodie King, Jr., it was reviewed in the New York Times by the critic Mel Gussow, who describes Harris's play as "a high-spirited and often rhapsodic search for the musician's soul." While Gussow finds that Kimbrough's literary tangents impede the progress of the play, the critic views the work as a whole as vivid and insightful. Mia Leonin, in her review of a 2001 Florida production for the New Times: Broward/Palm Beach, finds Harris's script to be "skillfully crafted" and "steeped in rural Southern vernacular, literary allusions, tall tales, song lyrics, and folklore." A 2005 production of the play in Chicago resulted in a less-than-favorable critique by Jonathan Abarbanel for Windy City Times. The critic describes Harris's drama as "overly poetic but crudely structured," and argues that it lacks "biographical detail and character depth." When the play was staged in Austin, Texas, in 2008, the production was praised by Avimaan Syam, writing for The Austin Chronicle. Syam applauds Harris's storytelling abilities and appreciates the poetry of his script. The critic further suggests that Johnson himself is used as a metaphor by Harris.
Dominic is a novelist, freelance writer, and editor. In this essay, she maintains that while Harris's play Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil is often studied almost exclusively for the way it interprets Page 182 | Top of Article the historical figure of Robert Johnson, the playwright crafts a character, who, independent of the bluesman myth, is a compelling, complex figure in his own right.
Bill Harris's character of Robert Johnson, as depicted in Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, has been examined by critics almost solely as the character relates to the actual bluesman Robert Johnson, who was believed to have been born in 1911, according to biographies such as Tom Graves's Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson. Certainly, the character is meant to be viewed as some representation of the actual bluesman, although one can never truly know what Harris as playwright intended. He includes information that is reflective of the real Johnson's life, for example, that he was known for a time as Robert Spenser, and that his mother was not married to his biological father. One must not assume, however, even when considering such parallels, that a drama featuring one historically based character and a number of entirely fictional ones is intended in some way to provide accurate answers to questions about the historically based character's life. Yet the play is often discussed with the relationship between the historical and the fictional Johnsons in mind.
For example, Patricia R. Schroeder, in her analysis of the play in Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, Page 183 | Top of Article and Contemporary American Culture (2004) focuses her study of the character of Johnson on the way Harris re-creates the myth of the historic Johnson. In Harris's myth, she argues, Johnson encounters the devil but retains his soul. As Schroeder states, in Harris's version, Johnson's talent is the result of his natural ability and his skill at learning from other musicians, a better myth, she maintains, than that which assumes an African American man cannot naturally possess the skill and insights Johnson's music demonstrates.
Another critic, Jonathan Abarbanel, who reviewed the play for the Windy City Times, finds that Harris's version of Johnson lacks depth of character and excludes known biographical facts about Johnson's life. Schroeder explores Harris's new myth of Johnson, and Abarbanel complains that Harris's work lacks both biographical information and complexity of character. Such examinations are limited and do not do justice to Harris's skill and insight as a dramatist. If Harris's Johnson is studied as a character inspired by, but not a shadow of, the historical Johnson, the playwright's creation stands as a fully realized character with his own complexities and shortcomings. Harris's Johnson is something other than, and more than, the re-created man and myth of Robert Johnson.
Certainly with the many biographies of Johnson available to him, Harris could have chosen to incorporate more of the biographical facts than those few he sprinkles in throughout his drama. He chooses instead to create a character, one with very common, human traits in addition to his extraordinary guitar-playing abilities. Harris's Johnson is a charming man with as much fear in him as confidence. Yet what makes him the most human and the most sympathetic character is his treatment of Kimbrough.
Robert walks into Georgia's jook joint and immediately begins flirting with her. His manner is easy. He teases her about the way her man's name is not listed on the sign that hangs out front above the entrance to her bar. But Johnson begins to expose his vulnerabilities when he and Georgia are alone in her room. He tells Georgia about the way Kimbrough (although he does not know Kimbrough's name) has been following him for a couple of weeks. As their talk of him continues, Robert wonders aloud, clearly frustrated and confused and perhaps frightened, "Why the hell can't he just leave me in peace!" Robert also reveals his early fascination with the blues, and again, when the conversation turns back to Kimbrough, his anger surfaces. He tells Georgia he just wants to be left alone to pursue his music, his own dream, but Kimbrough's pursuit has agitated him. He speaks of confronting him violently, but Georgia cautions him against it. After expressing his desire to chase Kimbrough "clean to hell and back," he wishes a silly, hopeful dream: that he could just go downstairs and play to a room full of appreciative people, until Georgia's whole place just floated away. Georgia's own tough demeanor softens at these words.
Later, after Georgia has left her room and has returned downstairs to find Lem, her estranged husband, waiting for her, Robert enters and is verbally assaulted by Lem. Despite Georgia's warning, Robert insults Lem, feeling that since Lem has left Georgia, he has no rights to her, nor any right to attack him. Significantly, in Robert's words to Lem, a hint of the trauma of his own past is revealed. In speaking of men who do not fight for their women and their families, he mentions the men that made his own father "sneak off from his family," that is, from a young Robert. His disdain for Lem appears to have as much to do with his own desire for Georgia as it does with his judgment of Lem as a deserter, a husband who abandons his family.
Thus far, Harris's Robert Johnson is a man whose present is infused with the past. His childhood love of the blues stands in sharp contrast to a childhood spent without a father. His present life is filled with frustration and anger at Kimbrough, whom he wishes to confront, but thus far, for whatever reason, has not. Just as easily as Page 184 | Top of Article he imagines hurting Kimbrough, he dreams of the whole of Georgia's jook joint simply floating away. Aggressive adult anger stands side by side with childish wishes.
When Robert finally reaches the point in the play when he agrees to discuss what happened at the crossroads, it is almost a disappointment that Harris infuses Robert's tale with the supernatural figure of Satan. The Robert the reader has come to know has been an interesting, complex, human figure, but now the myth is thrust upon him, even though in Harris's version of the Robert Johnson myth, Robert retains his soul. Although Robert's tale is heavily laden with references to Satan and Robert's exchange with him, he does describe the devil as "just a ordinary white man in a suit and tie." From that reference there is perhaps latitude to view Robert's tale as a metaphor for the way white record executives attempted to capitalize on his talent. Lem's response is in some ways supportive of a metaphorical reading. He calls Robert a liar and proceeds to relate his own experiences with his version of Satan, his two bosses on the levee job, one of them African American and one of them white. Lem tells Georgia that Robert must be lying, because Robert is just a man, no better than Lem, and the devil cannot be tricked. All one can do, Lem says, is "get away." In Lem's account, the devil is more easily viewed as a metaphor for the evil that men in power inflict on those subordinate to them. His story, while referring to the devil, is not only shorter, but more realistic and less flamboyantly told than Robert's. Lem, after all, is more plain-speaking than the dreamer Robert has shown himself to be.
What fully rounds out Robert's character, myth or no myth, is his treatment of his pursuer, Kimbrough, near the end of the play. As Robert has previously revealed to Georgia, Kimbrough has hounded him. Furthermore, Kimbrough has already, through the course of the play, demonstrated his racism, having made derogatory comments about African Americans a number of times. He further confesses that his own grandfather was a slaveholder and that the inheritance on which he comfortably lives was built upon the labor of slaves. Kimbrough tells Robert how Robert's music speaks to him and has done so since his grandfather died. He is conflicted about not having stood bravely by the side of his dying grandfather's bed and about having never confronted his grandfather about having owned slaves. Kimbrough states that he knew he was "a coward and a hypocrite," that he knew his family's money came from "lies, advantage, and misery." He admits to having made his own deal with the devil, another white man (his grandfather), in that he, Kimbrough, remained silent about his family's slaveholding past and was thereby rewarded with "comfort and leisure to teach." Kimbrough's devil is the most overtly metaphorical of the three such reference Harris depicts in the play. Robert says his devil appears to him as a well-dressed white man; Lem's is a two-faced figure-one black, one white-who metes out brutal authority over him; Kimbrough's devil is his white grandfather whom Kimbrough never confronted for fear of losing his inheritance. Intermingled with Kimbrough's confessions, Robert, like a therapist or a preacher, encourages and admonishes Robert to face his own sins of complicity and racism so that he will be able to tell the truth and move forward. Robert tells him that Kimbrough is "lost and down low" and that Kimbrough wants "to get found and rise up." Robert is suggesting here that Kimbrough is lost within his own fears and the secrets he has kept, and that Kimbrough longs to embrace truth and become a new man. Robert knows that Kimbrough was drawn to him through his music, and he encourages Kimbrough to admit this and to admit the reasons why, to confess the truth and "shame the Devil. Get out that nightmare." One of Robert's last acts on earth, as he is about to die of the poison given him by Lem, is to try and save the soul of a man to whom he owes nothing, a man tainted and tortured by his own racism, a man who has pursued Robert relentlessly. The character Harris creates is no mythological figure, although Harris does not sidestep the Johnson myth entirely. Rather, Harris's Robert Johnson is a well-crafted character, possessing the complexities and internal conflicts that make him an appealing, compelling subject of a drama, myth or no myth.
Source: Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
In the following review, Syam focuses on Harris's language, imagery, and characterization in an Austin, Texas, production.
What happened when Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads? Did he best the devil
with his sensational picking skills, or did he sell his soul to get them? Depends on who you ask.
Robert Johnson is a legend, in life and death, although that legend is clouded by so many half-truths, exaggerations, lies, and speculation that the truth lives in them as much as any hard facts. The famed blues guitarist passed away in Mississippi on Aug. 16, 1938, at the age of 27. Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil weaves its tale through both the facts and fiction surrounding the musician's last day, making its story as much about the legend of Johnson as the man himself.
Johnson may be the title character, but Trick the Devil takes its time focusing on the bluesman: The story, like a guitar string, slackens and tightens over time. The ProArts Collective/Austin Community College Drama Department co-production opens in Georgia's Colored Juke Joint, where the proprietor and her blind friend, Stokes, are idly telling stories to each other. Their language is so rich and their banter so natural that it doesn't matter that the arrival of conflict or other characters is delayed. Likewise, the action will slow down or altogether stop to allow for a monologue. You got to tell your story, no matter how long it takes.
Storytelling is at the heart of Trick the Devil. Characters reveal themselves through their tales, they communicate through them, their relationships change after hearing one another's accounts. The most dramatic moment in the play is not when a gun is aimed at someone's heart or when it's fired or when one of the characters dies, but when Robert Johnson tells the story of when he went down to the crossroads.
And Bill Harris' script is full of beautiful phrases, metaphors that stay with you like "run like a rabbit on a reefer breeze" or "go at each other like yard dogs over a soup bone." This is sharply in contrast with the language of Kimbrough, the white professor who's been searching for Johnson and whose every other sentence is a quote from Shakespeare.
Robert Johnson, though, may be the biggest metaphor of all. Everyone wants him to be something different. Kimbrough wants him to be the dirt-poor, cotton-pickin' emblem of the South that his records symbolize instead of the well-dressed and well-spoken man he is. Georgia, despite knowing his womanizing past, wants him as a lover. And Lem, Georgia's estranged husband, wants to prove his sufferance and manhood by besting Johnson.
So who is Robert Johnson? What do we learn about him? It's fascinating that in a play about Robert Johnson's last day, most of the conflict is created by those surrounding the legendary guitarist. Who's pulling who closer to death and destruction?
Johnson, played with slick charm by Aaron Alexander, rarely lets the characters and audience inside. Mostly he wants to be let alone—just to be himself. But the two or three moments that he does open up, that you begin to question what happened at the crossroads, say more than any of his fresh words do.
Director Marcus McQuirter's staging of Trick the Devil plays out like a Robert Johnson number: strong, sweet, natural, and full of longing. With some sharp performances, most notably Feliz McDonald's portrayal of Georgia, there aren't many finer ways to get the blues.
Source: Avimaan Syam, Review of Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, in Austin Chronicle, April 25, 2008.
In the following review, Swift covers a major National Black Theatre Festival in 2007 that featured Harris's Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil.
Jun. 8—Larry Leon Hamlin, founder of the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, died Wednesday. He was 58.
Hamlin, a Reidsville native who studied at Brown University, founded the biennial festival in 1989; Maya Angelou was its first chairwoman. For black playwrights and performers, it became known as "the doorway to New York," Raleigh playwright Rudy Wallace said Thursday.
Hamlin arranged staged readings for new playwrights and booked a wide variety of performances, from musical revues to classical theater, biographical dramas, comedies and one-person shows.
Bill Harris' Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil went from a staged reading in 1991 to a full production in 1993 and ended up Off-Broadway. Shoehorn, a tap musical directed by Raleigh native Herman LeVern Jones, opened at the festival in 1995, went to New York's La MaMa Experimental Theatre and earned Jones the prestigious Audelco Award. August Wilson's Jitney began its pre-New York tour at the 1997 festival.
"We want the world to know that artistic excellence can be found in black theater," Hamlin said in a 2003 interview. "We want to let them know that we are alive, that we are not dying, a school of thought that some people would choose to embrace."
The festival drew ethnically mixed audiences of all ages. In 2005, more than 65,000 people attended, according to a festival press release.
Raleigh director Patricia C. Caple, who founded N.C. State University's Black Repertory Theatre, called Hamlin a visionary.
"Sometimes you can be so isolated that you can't see what's going on that's really for, by and about you," said Caple, who retired this year from NCSU. "He provided that venue for people all over the world to see the latest and greatest of black theater."
Hamlin, whose own N.C. Black Repertory Company performed at the festival, expanded the offerings beyond traditional theater. Inspired by American Idol, he created a children's talent show. And his 2001 Midnight Poetry Jam, hosted by television star and poet Malcolm-Jamal Warner, was a huge hit.
"We thought we were doing it for young people, for the hip-hop generation, but there were four generations in the audience," he said in 2003. "My mother was there. My mother. Can you believe it? At midnight? Until 2 or 3 in the morning? And loving it? It was so beautiful to see these four generations being respectful and listening intently to one another."
Hamlin also embraced storytelling, said Beverly Fields Burnette, president of the N.C. Association of Black Storytellers.
"I e-mailed and said, ‘Well, you've got poetry on the stage, how about storytelling?’" she said. "Before I knew it, it was on the schedule."
Hamlin was hardworking and friendly, Wallace said. But he relished his growing fame. By the 2005 festival, he looked like as big a celebrity as the stars he brought in.
"He was walking around with an entourage, you know?" Wallace said with a laugh. "You couldn't even get to him. He had, like, four bodyguards on each side. I don't know if that was actually necessary, but it looked good."
Hamlin died at his home in Pfafftown, near Winston-Salem, after a long illness that his family has opted not to disclose. Details about services were not available at press time.
This year's festival will go on as planned, from July 30 through Aug. 4, at venues around the city.
Source: Orla Swift, "Larry Hamlin, 58, Founded National Black Theatre Festival," in News & Observer, June 8, 2007.
In the following review, Abarbanel questions Harris's style and view of the myth in a Chicago production of Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil.
Now-legendary Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson died in 1938 under mysterious circumstances close to where he was born, from poison or syphilis or both. He was 27, Black and relatively unknown even among other African-Americans of the era, so his demise was of no great official concern.
Since then, Johnson's reputation and influence have become gigantic based on his slim discography of 25 or so songs recorded 1936-1938, Page 187 | Top of Article the sheer force of his acoustic guitar work and the unexpected poetry of his lyrics. Legend says that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for musical prowess.
In Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, playwright Bill Harris posits that Johnson kept his soul by tricking the Devil into revealing musical secrets. Harris literalizes Johnson's presumed poisoning in a backroom jook joint as revenge for Johnson's affair with another man's woman, probably true, and scatters a few other known facts, such as Johnson's first recording session in San Antonio. Otherwise, this overly poetic but crudely structured play skimps on both biographical detail and character depth, leaving one knowing no more about Robert Johnson or the blues than at the start. Harris, a poet and academic, is far more interested in a pseudo-academic discussion of the blues and recycled racial cliche' s than in flesh-and-blood characters. For instance, Harris ignores the death of Johnson's first wife and newborn child, which must have influenced his art.
The cast demonstrates some ability but are asked to do impossible things, especially Jason Wilson as a guilt-stricken, white, Shakespeare professor from Boston obsessed with Johnson's music. Thoroughly improbable, he's a Yankee liberal who nonetheless spouts every nasty 1930's (and later) racial cliché. You can't have it both ways, even as a comic figure which he is (though not interpreted that way by Wilson or director Ron OJ Parson). David Adams as Poisoner Lem is asked only to threaten, glare and denounce the white and black supervisors of the WPA project he's worked on. James Earl Jones II as Stokes, a blind piano player, has no relation to plot but delivers direct narration to the audience. Since the other characters narrate too, what's the point of Stokes? Throughout, characters narrate rather than dramatize thoughts and actions.
Merl Sanders as Johnson and Sidney Miller as his femme fatale fare better. Sanders has a better-looking passing resemblance to Johnson and is a gifted singer/guitar player who pulls off the musical moments with aplomb. Miller, snazzily costumed by Kaniko Sago, provides high spirits and energy until Harris turns his focus elsewhere in Act II. Everyone works on Reginald Wilson's nicely-realized unit set, book ended by a fancy brass bed and a piano. But they can't create organic dramatic life from inert matter.
Source: Jonathan Abarbanel, Review of Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, in Windy City Times, July 6, 2005.
Patricia R. Schroeder
In the following excerpt, Schroeder describes Harris's exploration of race relations, romanticism, and the intricacies of African American culture itself.
Bill Harris's award-winning 1992 play Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil has some similarities to [T. Coraghessan] Boyle's story. Like "Stones in My Passway," Trick the Devil takes place in a southern juke joint on the day Robert Johnson is poisoned, and it echoes the story's themes of jealousy and treachery. It realistically invokes its historical era, both in the juke setting and in a wider social context, while including enough romanticism to reflect some of the same cultural bifurcations as Boyle's story. Yet Harris, an African American playwright, adds some different, specifically African American dimensions to the tale. Director Woodie King Jr. notes that in all his work, Harris is particularly interested in "giving voice to the often unheard, ignored, or misunderstood independent and creative spirit of African American males" (2). Accordingly, in Trick the Devil we get to hear Robert Johnson's side of his own story (at least, as Harris envisions it). But in addition to re-creating Johnson and his historical context. Harris also shows how Johnson's story came to be mythologized by cultural outsiders who glamorized Johnson and so removed him from history. According to Harris: "Every society has its indelible and embedded myths, and they're necessary to that society. One of the things that I've wanted to do is raise discussion about these myths as they apply to African-Americans, especially African-American men. The whole idea of Robert Johnson having to sell his soul in order to be able to play the way he did … that's where I start … and then examine the why of the myth, rather than just it itself. Why does America need to believe that?" (qtd. in Tysh). Examining the "why" of the myth is a crucial element of Trick the Devil. In so doing, the play offers an artistic deconstruction of the Robert Johnson myth because it depicts the myth being created.
The key element in this exposure of mythology as a construct is the character of Kimbrough, a pretentious northern professor and the only white character in the play. He enters "Georgia Mayberry's Colored Jook Joint" early in the play, searching for Robert Johnson, much as researchers Page 188 | Top of Article from John Hammond Sr. to Alan Lomax must have done. His outsider status is immediately apparent in his language. Unlike the lively vernacular spoken by Georgia Mayberry (the juke proprietor) and Stokes (the blind piano player), Kimbrough speaks in blank verse, his dialogue replete with allusions to Shakespeare, his research specialty. Kimbrough freely admits that he is out of his element and that he is afraid. He worries about being in the Delta environment, "a world / of shadows and smoke where nothing [is] solid," a world unlike his own realm "of reason, / order and certainty." He is searching for Robert Johnson because the power of Johnson's recorded music has upset his preconceived assumptions about race and culture. Speaking directly to the audience, Kimbrough marvels that Johnson's songs remind him of the Bible and Shakespeare, that they resonate with themes of loss and atonement. He wonders: "How does he—this unschooled black Orpheus / produce songs as universal and complex / as the intellectual love of my life?" Because Kimbrough accepts the stereotype that southern black people are primitive, "superstitious," "childlike perpetrators of unrepentant, / pot-luck violence," he is unnerved that Johnson's songs echo "universal" themes. Kimbrough apparently regards the Mississippi Delta as part of some universe other than his own.
Kimbrough has also heard the legend that Johnson sold his soul for his talent, "traded something he didn't think he needed, / for what he couldn't get any other way," but he doesn't know whether this or any other story about Johnson is true. Late in the play Robert Johnson himself tells the "true" story to Kimbrough. In this version, Johnson goes to the crossroads at midnight, but the devil is "just an ordinary white man in a suit and tie," some white power broker (a recording company executive, perhaps?) trying to exploit him. Because he is particular about other people touching his guitar, Johnson refuses to allow this white devil to tune it and instead plays as ferociously as he can. His impassioned playing eventually expresses not only his own life story but all of the misery in his racial memory: "the bondage, being bid for on the block, the lash, Jim Crow, the rope, the chain gang and the Klan…. And that's what got the Devil, because he couldn't call none of it a lie!" Infuriated, the devil plays his own guitar in a sort of demonic headbutting contest, and by watching him, Johnson becomes a virtuoso. Harris's Robert Johnson thus beats the devil at his own game simply by telling—and playing—the truth.
Kimbrough, it turns out, is himself tortured by a secret: his family wealth originated from slaveholding ancestors. When Kimbrough confesses this, Robert Johnson gives him the following advice: "Face your devil, walk along with him, side by side, then go your separate ways. That's the only way. And just like me you ain't got no choice." He encourages Kimbrough: "Go back and teach, professor. Go trick the Devil and tell the truth." The truth, however, is too much for Kimbrough to face. Unwilling to give up his tainted fortune and unable to live with himself for keeping it, Kimbrough instead creates a legend about Robert Johnson that sidesteps all the issues. In the play's epilogue we see him lecturing, creating a myth about Robert Johnson that fits neatly into the worldview that Kimbrough held before his southern journey and before meeting Robert Johnson. Claiming that his "research proves that [Johnson] / was in league with Satan from the age of / seventeen," Kimbrough describes Johnson in imagery more suitable for Macbeth's witches than a Delta bluesman. He depicts Johnson and Satan this way:
They would consort during thunder, lightning
and rain. And when they practiced their hurly
burly the multiplying villainies
of nature transmuted fair to foul
and foul to fair.
Kimbrough creates a myth about Robert Johnson that distances the truth-telling musician. He thereby preserves his "rational" worldview in the face of inexplicable musical genius and avoids acknowledging his own complicity with the hell-hounds dogging Johnson and himself.
Kimbrough's willful misrepresentation is obviously an exaggeration of the ways white Page 189 | Top of Article scholars have used the Robert Johnson story. No researcher that I know of came face to face with Johnson, heard his story firsthand, and then distorted it for personal aggrandizement. However, Harris's inclusion of Kimbrough in his reinvention of Robert Johnson—as well as his imagining the devil as a white man in a business suit—suggests that white privilege often rests upon black exploitation. In an artistic way, Harris is asking the question I asked throughout the introduction and chapter I: whose interests are served in such a representation? Harris's answer is uncompromising. During Robert Johnson's lifetime, African Americans were commodities used to shore up the personal fortunes—whether monetary, academic, or otherwise—of white people with power and media access. And if Harris uses Johnson's story as Boyle did, as "a point of departure" to comment on the present, one might assume that he is commenting on white exploitation of black talent today as well as in Johnson's era. Harris uses the story of Robert Johnson to reveal the power imbalances within American race relations and to show that myth is constructed by human beings with assumptions and agendas. By performing the construction of myth, Trick the Devil successfully unmasks it.
But Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil does more than expose the underpinnings of myth. Like Boyle's story, Harris's play is the product of a bifurcated culture, although Harris's focus is primarily on a racial divide, made apparent in the differences between Kimbrough and the other characters. Unlike Boyle, who intermingles realism and romanticism within his own narrative prose, Harris ascribes a pragmatic view of the world to his rural black characters and a naive romanticism to his more powerful white one. The realistic worldview of the black characters is best embodied by Lem, Georgia's estranged husband, who returns in mid-play from building a levee for the government. In the absence of other paying work (a reference to the Depression setting) Lem felt he had no choice but to accept the levee job, which he then found "worse than slavery." He describes long days of backbreaking labor under cruel white supervisors for small pay and with no time off. After enduring months of these conditions, Lem enters the juke enraged at Johnson's presence in Georgia's room and angry at the world: "I ain't the same as I was before I went up there moving that dirt," he warns Georgia, "so be careful, you don't know how much I can stand." Eventually, Lem poisons Robert Johnson. Through Lem, Harris establishes the broader social context that can impel individual actions and shows the tragic psychological effects of limited opportunity.
Lem's life is most unlike the bucolic fantasies of the rural South that Kimbrough harbors, although Kimbrough soon learns that his idea of an idyllic South is a misconception. Expecting to find "the undisciplined world of soil tillers, / idlers, roaming song singers," he discovers instead "a powder keg ready to explode," his pastoral fantasy replaced by the harsh reality of a Depression-era, racist economy. His differences from the black characters are everywhere apparent, from his elevated language to his response to folk culture. When Georgia and Stokes talk about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox—stories about betrayal and wiliness and thus relevant to the events at hand—Kimbrough dismisses them as "[n]onsense tales.… Diversionary, but little more." Unaware that the man he is seeking will be killed that very day in the juke joint where he sits, Kimbrough recalls a juke joint dance he once witnessed as "[j]ust darkie fun." Repeatedly the black characters observe that white people "can't see nothing but what they want to see," and Kimbrough repeatedly proves them right. The contrast is sharply etched in a fragment of dialogue near the end, when Robert is trying to help Kimbrough face his personal devils. After an intense, climactic dialogue in which Kimbrough describes the demon that haunts his dreams, we hear:
Kimbrough: It's a metaphor.
Robert: Metaphor my ass, it's a hellhound,
In this brief exchange, Harris encapsulates the different worldviews of the two characters and emphasizes Kimbrough's dangerous romanticism. Robert faces the truth regardless of what it brings him; Kimbrough displaces it to the status of literary trope. Kimbrough's final retreat to the myth-making lecture of the epilogue is the ultimate abandonment of what he has learned, a betrayal of both Robert and himself. While imagining Johnson in league with Satan may restore his ability to function in his rational world—where poor black singers cannot be Orpheus—one wonders who has really sold his soul in this play.
In addition to the cultural fissures between black and white, realism and romanticism, Harris's play goes one step further to explore the bifurcations within African American culture itself. The scene opens on a rainy afternoon in the juke, where Page 190 | Top of Article Georgia and Stokes swap stories as they prepare for their evening clientele. Through their opening conversation, Harris reveals his grounding in what novelist Arthur Flowers calls the "literary hoodoo" tradition of African American literature. For Flowers, "literary hoodoo"writers are spiritually inclined heirs to a double literary tradition of western written forms and African American oral ones (75-77). Their works include elements of both western and African culture and arts and preserve the stories that are vital to "communal health and empowerment" (79). The opening dialogue between Georgia and Stokes offers a succinct example of such cultural hybridity. The blind Stokes can see the future, a gift he has inherited from his hoodoo-practicing grandmama. Yet African American culture was influenced by southern Christianity as well as by African spiritual practices, and Georgia, who knows firsthand that Stokes's predictions come true, nonetheless sees herself as someone who "went for Christian" rather than hoodoo (Harris 8). This double heritage is also reflected in the structure of Harris's play. Like most western dramas, the play proceeds in a linear, cause-and-effect manner, with characters' actions clearly motivated and plot complications leading to a climax and a denouement. The play itself thus reveals its roots in western literary traditions while it nonetheless celebrates African American oral ones.
And celebrate that oral culture it does. The play is not exactly a musical, but it includes performances of many Robert Johnson songs, and as one reviewer noted, "many of the play's speeches and sequences play like musical numbers" (Holman). The vibrancy of African American folk culture is highlighted once Kimbrough enters, his presence creating "an opportunity for the other players to reveal the ingenious language, signifying, and role-playing African Americans created to keep their real life separate from the life the white man saw" (Leonin). Georgia and Stokes invoke numerous African American folk figures, from Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox to the Signifying Monkey; they imitate black vaudevillians Butter Beans and Susie; they discuss cultural traditions like Stokes's grandmama's healing "tricks" or the significance of names to African Americans. Through their exuberant verbal facility they reveal the vitality and value of African American culture; for them, western traditions like Christianity coexist easily with African-derived cultural products and values.
Writing in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois famously described this duality of outlook among African Americans as "double-consciousness," or the ability of African Americans to see the world simultaneously from a majority viewpoint (as Americans) and from a marginalized one (as oppressed African Americans). He wrote:
[T]he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (102)
Most commentators on Du Bois's notion of double-consciousness focus on the pain of the condition, on the "twoness," the internal "war." Yet Du Bois's definition includes some decidedly positive aspects as well. He describes double-consciousness as a gift—as second sight, or the ability to see things others do not see. Elsewhere in The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois predicts that "the problem of the twentieth century will be the problem of the color line" (100), and one suspects that people able to assess this problem from two different viewpoints, majority and oppositional, might have some advantages in understanding the world around them. In the case of Harris's characters, at any rate, double-consciousness enables them to function smoothly in two worlds: they know how to avoid revealing themselves to Kimbrough, and they know how to survive the hardships of their own lives, often with grace and good humor. Their pragmatism is thus a result of their cultural heritage. They easily recognize and manipulate multiple frames of reference; they can see complexly in a world full of contradictions.
In this, the pragmatic African American characters contrast sharply with the bookish Kimbrough, the ivory-tower romantic with no appreciation of multiple perspectives. His worldview cannot accommodate the presence of another; all things must be shaped to fit within his singular ideas of validity and value. The poverty of this unitary vision within a bifurcated culture is emphasized in Harris's epilogue, Page 191 | Top of Article where Stokes, not Kimbrough, has the last word. Immediately after Kimbrough's lecture on Johnson's traffic with the devil—a chilling moment, since the audience knows that Kimbrough knows better—Stokes offers a final comment. Emphasizing his own "second sight" and offering interpretive options Kimbrough could never imagine, the blind Stokes says: "Robert Johnson? He be back. He just going down to hell and ease some people's minds; maybe move some rocks around, even change the way the river run. Aw, he'll be back directly, don't you worry 'bout a thing. Just like he been here before he be back again. How I know? 'Cause it's happened before. And I seen it with my own eyes!" With this comment, an amalgam of cultural images, the play ends. The picture of Robert Johnson that lingers is of a man with supernatural insights, prodigious talent, and an ability to rise again that links him to Christ, the phoenix, High John the Conqueror, or all three, depending on your cultural frame(s) of reference. What also lingers is the sad fact that Johnson's legend and legacy have been co-opted and distorted by the Kimbroughs of the world, purveyors of proscriptive "truth" who are unable to face truths about themselves and the sources of their privilege. Perhaps, suggests Harris, the very act of myth-making is the inevitable product of our differences, of our misunderstandings and refusals to see—in short, of our quintessentially American cultural bifurcations.
Source: Patricia R. Schroeder, "The Invention of the Past," in Robert Johnson: Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture, University of Illinois Press, 2004, pp. 75-81.
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Conwill, Kinshasha, and Arthur C. Danto, Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South: The Ronald and June Shelp Collection, Harry N. Abrams, 2001.
Conwill and Danto's book features the visual art of southern African American Vernacular Page 192 | Top of Article artists. Vernacular artists, also sometimes called folk artists, are artists without classical training whose work is inspired by everyday, ordinary people. The images collected in this book are also accompanied by essays on the history and culture of African Americans of the Deep South.
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Gioia's is an exhaustive and critically acclaimed study of the genesis, development, and influence of the blues born in the Delta region of Mississippi. Much attention is paid to debunking the myths and speculations that have been attached to Robert Johnson and his career.
Greenburg, Cheryl, To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans in the Great Depression, Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.
Greenburg's book explores the daily life and struggles of African Americans during the Great Depression. She studies African American participation in New Deal programs, the particular difficulties African Americans faced in competing for jobs with white Americans, and a broader analysis of the racism prevalent during this time period.
Shine, Ted, and James V. Hatch, eds., Black Theatre, USA: Plays by African Americans: The Recent Period, 1935-Today, Free Press, 1996.
In this collection edited by Shine and Hatch, plays by African American dramatists are grouped according to subject matter, such as "Social Protest," "Family Life," and "Modern Women Writing on Women." A section on new plays features works by contemporaries of Harris.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2279400020