The Ensemble Theatre (3535 Main) has opened its 25th anniversary season with a hellhound on its trail, specifically in the form of Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil. The play, by Bill Harris, runs through Sunday, October 7, and stars Cedric Turner as the doom-laden bluesman. Harris hopes to examine not so much Johnson's biography but more "the American cultural establishment's need to believe his mythological tale rather than being able to deal with the man and who he was." Harris is also a Wayne State University professor of English anthologies and the author of two collections of poems, one of which -- "Yardbird Suite: Side One" -- is devoted entirely to Charlie Parker.

Turner is a veteran of musical drama, having played Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson, C.J. Memphis in the Negro Ensemble production of A Soldier's Story and Guitar Man in the Philadelphia Drama Guild's production of Thunder Knocking on the Door. Asked what it was like to get in the skin of an allegedly demonically possessed bluesman, the Louisville-bred Turner (who just happens to be Muhammad Ali's first cousin) says, "It's funny, because I did not really play the blues until late in life. One day I was driving and a professor friend of mine put a tape in the tape deck, and all of a sudden I heard [hums a few bars of 'Cross Road Blues']. I was floored. I went out and started researching Robert Johnson. I bought the boxed set.

"I was just fascinated by the man and his music, but for the life of me I couldn't get all his music down. I could do 'Stop Breaking Down,' I could do 'They're Red Hot,' and I could do 'Come On in My Kitchen' in E but not in slide D. A white bluesman from Boston taught me a couple of more tunes of his -- he plays a National Steel guitar just like I do -- and a couple of other people threw some licks my way, and then I realized that I had to get a tape and listen over and over again [to myself] -- it helps."

By immersing himself in Johnson's life and music, Turner was putting himself in a place where many would fear to go. Johnson's blues came from an abyss far deeper than those inhabited by most bluesmen, much less everyday people. "You want the easy road. There's too much I have to do. I can't dedicate myself to the wee hours of drinking myself into a stupor, and finding myself in that place, but I have done that. It's like 'Wow! That's the Robert Johnson way. That's where it comes from.' Only after being down there damn near in hell with him can you understand. If you ask me what it's like to be in his skin, I'll tell you I've been in his skin in probably more ways than one, and am still probably very much going through it as I speak."

Turner finds that he can decompress from Johnson's world by taking up the pen. "My writing gets me out of it. Singing blues is fun, but it's work. Yes, it's work."

The Pacifica Foundation has found five new members to send forth into the breach on its national board of directors (see Racket, August 2). Houstonian George Barnstone, a commercial realtor for Vallone & Associates, civil litigation attorney and ACLU activist, partially fills the void left by the recent resignations of fellow Bayou City board members David Acosta and Michael Palmer. The other four are Washingtonians (which brings the D.C. contingent to nine of 16 on the national board), one of whom is (or more accurately has been) famous, another of whom is infamous. The two relative unknowns are nonprofit wonk/marketing pro Krishna Roy and James Ferguson, the director of research and planning for the Congress of National Black Churches Inc. The once famous man is Dick Gregory, gadfly, presidential candidate, author, dietitian, comedian and most recently a long-term denizen of the Where Are They Now? file. The notorious man is none other than Marion Barry, the dashiki-wearing crack dilettante who this April pleaded out of an indecent exposure charge (in exchange for 20 hours of community service) and was given a year of unsupervised probation for an assault charge. The charges followed a murky wee-hours incident in a Baltimore Washington International Airport restroom, in which the former D.C. mayor (who has urinary difficulties brought on by prostate cancer surgery) ignored a female janitor's admonition for him to zip it and whizzed away. A tussle followed Barry's tinkle, and the janitor filed assault charges and slapped him with a $300,000 suit.

In other Pacifica news, Amy Goodman has taken her combative Democracy Now! program into exile. On August 21, according to Goodman loyalists, the pugnacious host opened the morning paper only to read that she had been suspended without pay by New York Pacifica station WBAI. Now her show airs only on the Net and over the airwaves of KPFA, Pacifica's Berkeley affiliate. The suspension follows Goodman's exodus from WBAI's studio to another across Manhattan. Goodman had claimed that an atmosphere of violence and intimidation had forced her to move out of WBAI's studio after a fight between her and Utrice Leid, WBAI's interim station manager. WBAI refused to air the live segments that Goodman taped from her new digs, and has been airing Democracy Now! reruns and various more-mainstream news programs.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

It's being billed as the show that wouldn't give up. Hard Rock Soft Hearts, a two-day heavy metal/heavy alternative/ industrial death music benefit for the Houston Food Bank that was washed out back in June's Great Flood, has been rescheduled for October 5 and 6 at Bobby's Xtreme Sports Bar & Grill (7843 Highway 6, near Beechnut). The Friday card, which commences at 7 p.m., includes S.I.N.I.C., Anguish in Exile, Dominus, Foundry and Hollister Fracus, while Saturday's show (which starts at 5 p.m.) includes Streetready, Ugly Wanda, Love and War, Mystic Cross, Big Left Turn, Magistral (see below) and Z-Lot-Z. Cost is a five-spot or three cans of food…Houston blues-'n'-jazz horn man Calvin Owens's greatest-hits package was released September 23 at a shindig at Club Classic on the north side. Owens's professional career is now in its 55th year, bridging the gap between the eras of minstrel shows and MP3s. No five-year period has been more fruitful for Owens than the one that has just passed, which saw him move back to Houston from Europe with his Belgian-born wife, Sarah Send, and release five full-length CDs. The disc clocks in at just over an hour of Owens's hand-picked big-city blues… Magistral, Chile's "hottest" progressive heavy metal band, was recently in town recording its January 2002 release. The Latin rockers' as-yet-untitled disc was engineered and produced by Dan WorkmanMerle Haggard seems to be off his meds these days. His most recent theory for the current sorry state of country music (which he terms "background music for bad videos") is that it's all Bill Clinton's fault. According to The Hag, Clinton closed too many military bases and thus killed the bars nearby where the soldiers once honky-tonked. The theory is interesting, and perhaps holds some merit, but what doesn't make sense is Haggard's insinuation that Clinton closed the bases with the idea of killing country music foremost in his mind. Racket can just see Clinton and his cabinet and the joint chiefs of staff huddled together, cackling with maniacal glee as they plot the death of country via base closings…


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