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Sonny’s Blues

Verbatim Theater

James Baldwin believed fervently in the salvific power of literature -- and in the power of a writer to affect change. “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” There were limitations to that power, he believed, but had no other course than to address whatever corrupted principalities permeated the day.

A modern day storytelling guru, Salman Rushdie, put it this way in Haroun and the Sea of Stories: “There is a limit to how much rain a person can enjoy…[but] from the great Story Sea, he’d reply, I drink the warm Story Waters and then I feel full of steam.” It’s from this great well of stories that Baldwin draws a tale of a difficult relationship between two brothers, called Sonny’s Blues. Based on Baldwin’s own relationship with his brother, the story’s set against the backdrop of segregation’s final gasps and the rise of jazz.

Enter Word for Word -- the theater company, that is. An ensemble in its fourteenth year, Word for Word is live theater with a twist: stories are adapted directly from literary texts such that nothing, not a single word, is dropped from the script. Quite literally, the stories are told word-for-word.

If at first brush this sounds dry and decidedly un-theater-like, be dissuaded: telling great stories this way -- in addition to Baldwin, Word for Word’s performed works by Tobias Wolff, Michael Chabon and Sherwood Anderson -- lifts the text to life, breathing a new dimension into the textures of the story. It’s akin to going from a flat map to a relief map: the mountains jump out, the beaches and canyons suddenly three-dimensional, picture-able.

Down to the details -- phrases like “he said” or “she said” -- Word for Word preserves the language and flavor of the author’s original work in a way adaptations are rarely capable of. Word for Word performance is not devoid of characters, props, soundtracks or other machinations of the stage. Rather, these things are simply woven into the fabric of the performance: when the story’s narrator for instance describes a gritty looking man standing outside his bbq smoking a cigarette, that very line, “a gritty looking man standing outside his bbq smoking a cigarette” is uttered by an actor whose just stepped onto the stage, gritty-looking, smoking a cig, clearly playing the chef at a bbq. It’s as if the author’s reading the work and it’s breathing to life, inflating, like blowing bubbles, right there on the stage.

Baldwin’s story, not sacrificing art for the sake of a message, still manages to tackle themes as old as the ticking clock -- poverty, drug abuse, sibling rivalry, dreams deferred -- through the eyes the brothers, loving and hating each other. When Sonny wants to become a jazz pianist, his overprotective brother gets concerned. Sonny falls in with a crowd of heroin-users and Greenwich Village artist-hippie types. His older brother’s concern surges, becomes a barrier to the two brothers’ friendship, spills out onto the stage in conflict pitting two black men against their past, their dreams and each other. It’s been twenty years since Baldwin died in the south of France, but this firebrand for civil rights’ word's shine on through the mouths of his characters. Expertly casted and acted, the Word for Word approach makes Baldwin’s painfully and carefully observed prose leap that much higher, like a desperate glinting fish, leaping from the Sea of Stories.

"Sonny’s Blues" runs at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater (620 Sutter Street) through March 2nd.Tickets: $22 - $36.