By Maegan Clearwood
In 1948, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published reporter Ray Sprigle’s recounts of his month-long journey as a black man traveling through the Jim Crowe South.
Sixty-three years later, drama lecturer and playwright Dr. Robert Earl Price’s poetic stage retelling of Sprigle’s story made its world premiere on the Washington College stage.
“All Blues” was a collaborative production between the WC drama department and 7 Stages, a professional theater company from Atlanta, Ga., where Price has been a resident playwright for over 20 years.
Cast and production crew consisted of WC faculty and students and members of the 7 Stages company. The show opened last weekend at Decker Theatre for Chestertown audiences. After the Saturday performance, cast and crew traveled to Atlanta, Ga., to perform at the 7 Stages Theater from Sept. 22 through Sept. 25.
Price developed the initial concept for the play more than two years ago after reading a commemorative article about Sprigle’s journey by Bill Steigerwald. Price then read the original series of articles entitled “I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days,” and started writing.
“I wasn’t excited until I read the 20 reports,” Price said. “They were elegant. They weren’t exactly poetry, but there were accurate descriptions of the South.”
Price incorporated music, dance, video, and poetry into his play, which he named after Miles Davis’s revolutionary 1959 album “Kind of Blues.”
After writing the play, Price selected the album as a motif for the production, which “seemed the right tempo for the play, almost a waltz.”
Director and drama professor Dale Daigle has worked on the production and funding aspects of the play since the beginning. Daigle said securing financial backing for the play was difficult, but made possible by grants, the College, and 7 Stages.
A published playwright and poet, this is Price’s fifth premiere with 7 Stages, so he is accustomed to revising his own work.
Price said he has written eight drafts for “All Blues,” and Daigle said script changes were even implemented during the week of the production.
“The play has changed so much. One character was even completely eliminated. It was amazing to see how the show changed, grew, and ultimately became the beautiful work we saw on stage today,” said senior Marta Wesenberg, who has assisted Price with videography for two years and acted as a member of the chorus.
Wesenberg was one of six WC students who acted in the premiere, including senior Mike Zurawski, whose performance was part of his senior capstone thesis.
Daigle said Price wrote the play with specific actors in mind for the central characters. The cast included WC drama department lecturer Polly Sommerfield, Kent County singer Karen Somerville, Chestertown musician Bob Ortiz, and 7 Stages artistic director Del Hamilton as Ray Sprigle.
According to Daigle, open auditions were held last semester to cast the rest of the ensemble.
“The most challenging part was familiarizing younger cast members with Jim Crowe and what it amounted to,” Price said. “Born into the 21st century, they have little idea of that. They assume that because we elected an African American president, it’s a thing of a far different past, but that’s not quite true.”
Daigle said training the cast in the script’s unique dialect and preparing to switch casts with the 7 Stages company were the two most challenging aspects of the directing process.
Aside from Hamilton, who will be performing in Atlanta for one of the two production weeks after the WC cast leaves, all of the acting roles will be flopped.
“It’s going to be interesting. We’ve all switched actors before, but this is flopping a whole cast,” he said.
New cast members have been watching the WC cast on video, and Daigle said he will stage the replacement cast during his stay in Atlanta.
“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to bring the show to another stage. Their space is amazing,” Wesenberg said.
After the Atlanta production, “All Blues” will hopefully make appearances elsewhere. Price said a theater in Pittsburgh, where Sprigle’s articles were initially published, has expressed interest in the play.
He also said that 7 Stages, which has a broad international rapport, may attract widespread attention to the play.
“Some people think the conversation about race is over, but it’s not. The play enables people to express things otherwise not exposed. It’s important because otherwise this sore festers,” Price said.