Rediscovering the jazz pioneer Lonnie Johnson and his music
Trenton’s Passage Theatre Company kicks off its 2022-2023 season with a semi-musical fictionalized account of the rediscovery of jazz pioneer Lonnie Johnson, Blues in My Soul. The tightly-packed 90-minute play, featuring many songs written by Johnson, is by David Robson and directed by Ozzie Jones. It’s a moving play, especially when the driving beat of the blues pervades the Mill Hill Playhouse, sweeping the audience into its embrace.
It’s 1959. Radio DJ Chris Albertson (Jonathan Jacobs), a self-styled blues aficionado, has come to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Hotel. There he meets and confronts custodian Alonzo Johnson (David Brandon Ross), claiming he is the early, influential blues musician Lonnie Johnson.
Lonnie had long vanished from the music scene, yet many guitarists of the time credited him as an influence on their own playing styles. Alonzo denies the connection, but Chris finally gets a grudging half-admission of his true identity. Chris presses his luck, handing Lonnie his own guitar to get him to play several of his biggest hits — as he learns why Lonnie is no longer active on the music scene and why he is not eager to return.
While one gets the basics of the message playwright Robson seeks to convey, this is one play that could use some expansion. Chris’ convincing Lonnie to play, to record a song on the tape, and even to raise a very faint hope of getting Johnson to go back to recording and touring seem to come too quickly at this first meeting. Similarly, Lonnie’s determination to forgo the music business seems to waver too quickly. While the story makes a solid frame to feature many old and nearly-forgotten blues classics, it seems almost too crowded to do them justice — and too short to include more lost gems from Johnson’s career.
Still, Ross, an avant-garde musician and recording artist, handles the demands of conveying Johnson’s hurt and stubborn reluctance and his blues guitar chops with equal skill. Jacobs proves he can match Ross in portraying Albertson’s determination to bring Johnson back to musical life and acquits himself well in playing solos and duets with Ross. Director Jones has managed to balance the dramatic and musical demands of this play and bring this balance to the performances of his cast.
The set, created by Marie Laster, with props designed by Greg Pemicone and lit by Jasmine Williams, is a perfectly decrepit, cramped space for Lonnie and Chris to meet, bump heads, and form bonds. The design team at Passage Theatre Company shows just how much can be achieved with a small budget and huge imagination, unlike some larger theater organizations around the state.
Blues in My Soul is for those who have an interest in blues history, for those who are moved by inspired music played with respect for its creators, and for those who are looking for a rousing good time in the theater. I recommend making the trip to Trenton’s Mill Hill Playhouse to see Blues in My Soul before its all-too-brief run ends.
Blues in My Soul is presented by the Passage Theatre Company at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton through October 30, 2022. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 609-392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org. The company strongly suggests but does not mandate wearing masks in the building.