“Thunder Knocking on the Door,” the musical Creative Cauldron is staging this month, is described as a blues fable. For Director Stephen Gregory Smith, there is magic in this musical, and it goes far beyond the supernatural things its characters experience.
The blues world, Smith explained, is ripe with incredible tales. Its early pioneers have become larger-than-life legends through lore, like the story that Robert Johnson traded his soul to the devil to gain his guitar skills. Myths of the genre’s creation and its power abound.
In “Thunder Knocking on the Door,” Marvell Thunder is said to be the keeper of the blues. He’s a cunning trickster who challenges his victims to get what he wants. The only man to ever best Thunder is Jaguar Dupree Sr., who beat him at playing the guitar. Jaguar Sr. fashioned two guitars with special powers for his children. After Jaguar Jr. lost one of the magic instruments to Thunder, the shape-shifting swindler has come to the Dupree home to get the other, and now it’s up to Jaguar Sr.’s blind daughter Glory to defend it.
Smith says he must have seen the blues musical 10 times when it was performed at D.C.’s Arena Stage back in the ’90s. Clapping, laughing, stomping, and screaming came from an audience enlivened by the production.
“I fell in love with it,” Smith said. “It was one of the most pleasurable audience experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”
And according to Smith, there’s a lot to love about “Thunder Knocking on the Door,” especially in the bluesy score by Grammy-winner Keb’ Mo’ and writing by Keith Glover that’s hysterical and gives each of its fully drawn characters a bit of redemption in the end.
When Smith heard Creative Cauldron was considering putting on the musical, he knew he had to be a part of the show.
“I wanted to try to find a way to create the same joy that I experienced in the audience for other people,” Smith.
But as director, Smith wouldn’t have the resources of the ample Arena Stage. Instead, he’d have to stage the musical in the modest theater in ArtSpace. He found inspiration in the juke joints of 1960s Alabama, where the musical takes place.
There was something magical about the juke joints he discovered in his research, Smith explained, the shacks sometimes hidden away in the woods where people in the know could drink, dance, and listen to the blues. Gip’s Place, one of the oldest juke joints still in operation, is found in the very city where the fictional Dupree family lives. He learned it was started by a family out of their home. It occurred to him that he could make the cozy Creative Cauldron space into something like a juke joint run out of the Dupree home.
“Going to a juke joint isn’t like going to see a concert or going to a bar,” Smith said. “It’s almost like going over to a friend’s house to listen to a record together. There is a camaraderie, there is a real love of music, and that’s what the intimate space of Creative Cauldron lends itself to.”
Audiences will be invited into the imagined juke joint, where they’ll hear live blues music and see a singing and dancing cast perform the mystical battle between the Dupree family and Mr. Thunder. And by the time they leave, Smith hopes they’ll have found the magic in this show that he did.
“If the audience walks away from this half as much a fan of this show as I became after sitting in the audience all those years ago, then I’ll be happy,” Smith said.
“Thunder Knocking on the Door” runs May 2 –26. Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The play will be performed at ArtSpace Falls Church, 410 S. Maple Ave. Tickets are $22 for general admission, and $20 for students and seniors. For more information, visit creativecauldron.org.