Guy Davis is a master storyteller, and a mean musician

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Guy Davis in
Guy Davis in "Sugarbelly" at the Crossroads Theatre

Sugarbelly and Other Tales My Father Told Me:  the legends live on

Let me say up front:  Guy Davis is a master storyteller, and a mean musician to boot. Just as Crossroads Theatre Company has roared back to life with its current production of Freedom Rider, in presenting Davis’ one-man show Sugarbelly and Other Tales My Father Told Me, they prove they have also mastered the delicate art of presenting solo performances.

Sugarbelly’s title tells it all. Davis’ show is fashioned around family stories told by his grandparents, his famous parents (Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee), and his uncles and aunts. These are tales – part true, part legend – of life in 20th Century Georgia for Black folks, mixed in with blues and work songs. They do not shy away from the casual brutality of racism or the pervasive, omnipresent threat of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet they are also tales of humor and of the mix of music and everyday courage required to get through the back-breaking daily routine.

The first act of Sugarbelly is centered around the arrival in a small town of “The Handsome Jack Lodi Medicine Show”. Medicine shows of the time were part entertainment, part revival meeting, and part hucksterism. “Professor” Lodi’s elixir, while claiming to cure every ailment known to mankind, was nothing more than pure bottled moonshine, peddled with a fervor surpassing today’s TV shopping channels.

Woven in and around the excitement preceding the medicine show are tales of the people in town:  their relationships to each other and their place in the town’s social structure. One such tale is that of Sugarbelly, a young female prostitute of mixed race with frizzy red hair and emerald green eyes like her white mother. She is mysteriously murdered, presumably on the orders of a jealous lover. 

In the second act, Davis relates stories about his own family passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. He tells of his grandfather, who became a target of the Klan for being named a railroad construction foreman with authority over all his workers, white and black. He narrates the story of his father, who walked from Valdosta, GA to Washington, DC to enroll at Howard University to study science, but who dropped out to become a writer in New York City. He reels off the accomplishments of his father’s siblings, and he tells of family gatherings where the old stories were told and retold to the next generation of Davises. And among those old stories was one that linked the Davis family to the real-life murder of Sugarbelly, whose real name remains unknown. Her story, while not related graphically, is delivered in a style that sent shivers up my spine.

The set, a bare wooden stage with a myriad of empty picture frames suspended on three sides, contains some chairs, a table, half a dozen guitars and banjos and a harmonica, and a small glass Mason jar containing a clear liquid from which Davis takes occasional sips. Strings of incandescent bulbs hang from the proscenium back and down the stage walls, and out over the heads of the audience, pulling us into the world of the medicine show. All of this is the inspired design of Maruti Evans, complemented by the sound design of Twi McCallum.

Davis, who is the author of this self-described work in progress, has collaborated with his director, A. Dean Irby, to present an entertainment that grabs the audience’s attention from the first notes of the first blues song and never lets go. As part of the inaugural Crossroads Festival Theatre, Sugarbelly won’t be around for long.  I encourage you to take a memory trip with the multi-talented Guy Davis to visit Sugarbelly and Other Tales My Father Told Me.

Sugarbelly and Other Tales My Father Told Me is presented by the Crossroads Theatre Company in the Arthur Laurents Theatre at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through June 26th. For more information, or to purchase tickets, call 732-545-8100 or visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org. The performing arts center requires the wearing of masks while inside the building.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first live play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. He works in the box office at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.