Theater archives

Just Folks


Legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie traveled across America like a guitar-strumming 20th-century Walt Whitman. He roamed from his birthplace in the Oklahoma hills to the dust bowls of Texas and on to the promised land of California, eventually journeying as far as New York City’s Lower East Side, where he put his hat down on the sidewalk and sang for his supper. It was the era of the Great Depression and the Second World War— a time when even the most plaintive voices were being drowned out by the sheer volume of distress. Taking up the poet’s vow in “Song of Myself,” Guthrie pledged his ear in sympathetic fellowship to his neighbor: “Now I will do nothing but listen, to accrue what I hear into this song.”

Woody Guthrie’s American Song, Peter Glazer’s musical tribute to the author of “This Land Is Your Land,” mixes two dozen of Guthrie’s hits with poetry and prose from his life. Sean
McCourt leads a harmonious ensemble of five singers backed by a quartet of musicians fully conversant with fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, bass, and, of course, harmonica and spoons. While the path of Guthrie’s hardscrabble early years is only sketched, the historical context of the music is fully colored in. Glazer’s footstomping revue is not simply a concert of Guthrie songs, but an introduction to the people and events that inspired them.

The opening image of Guthrie being converged upon from all sides by working men and women unburdening themselves of their stories captures the spirit of this consummate folk hero. Titles like “Dust Bowl Refugee,” “Worried Man,” and “Ain’t Going To Be Treated This Way” signal the songwriter’s deep connection to those who have fallen through the cracks of the American dream. Having lived much of his life in the obscurity of the rural poor, Guthrie was determined to put a human face on those anonymous headlines of hardship and disaster. In “The Sinking of the Reuben James” and “Deportee,” which memorializes a plane wreck at Los Gatos, the singer, fed up with talk of statistics, begs to know the names and stories of those who went down. This is Guthrie’s unique brand of protest music, and its plain folk style grounded in individual lives influenced a generation of songwriters from Dylan to Springsteen.

Glazer’s portrait of the artist is lovingly, even reverently rendered, though it manages to steer clear of hokiness. The blended personalities of the ensemble contribute to the authentic working-class sentiment of the piece. McCourt makes an amiable everyman, a life traveler whose greatest happiness is in picking up his guitar and rhapsodizing those around him with his gentle tenor. With her lilting soprano, Lisa Asher brings a bruised hopefulness to her caretaking characters, while Ernestine Jackson’s somber alto vibrates with a knowledge as deeply felt as Guthrie’s own.

Musically, Slant— the Asian American rock-‘n’-roll performance ensemble— falls into the Sandra Bernhard category of not talented enough to take seriously though not untalented enough to dismiss out of hand. wetSpot, their latest satire grappling with questions of ethnic marginalization, reworks the same ingredients of their previous shows, Big Dicks Asian Men and Squeal Like a Pig. The recipe involves an electric guitar overture, shadow puppetry, space age costumes, one or two karaoke-style numbers, cartoon politics, and a jam session finale— none of which, by the way, can compare in inventiveness to the company’s knack for coming up with memorably salacious show titles.

The story begins with a traffic accident comically dramatized with a plastic dog, stick figures, and an overhead projector. Unexpectedly, three men of the living have been ushered by red bubble-eyed creatures to the realm of the wetSpot, a limbo region where the story of one’s life must be sung as a rite of passage before moving onto the next world (represented here as a giant goldfish bowl). One by one, the blood-stained men perform songs that include a soppy love ballad, a humorous beatnik rap on Chinese Americans, and a cacophonous rant on fatherhood. Shortly after the deceased are brought together, the conversation turns from their unusual new predicament as living corpses to their nolessunusual old predicament as partly assimilated Asian Americans.

Slant has made a specialty of dreaming up outlandish fantasies to convey an experience of cultural alienation. In Squeal Like a Pig, for example, the group portrays a trio of newly arrived extraterrestrials in desperate search for a minimumwage-paying job. The imagination behind these scenarios may be somewhat juvenile, but it is unabashedly so. The problem, as wetSpot grindingly illustrates, is that this kind of humor falls flat when spontaneity turns into formula. Lacking any sense of urgency, the material devolves into a kind of shtick, which none of the actors have the comic technique to make fly.

The final tableau features the three men in goldfish costumes swimming happily together in a coral reef. Racial difference is obviously a nonsubject in the briny afterworld— which leaves a little time for Slant to hawk their recently released CD and T-shirts. And that’s a tune as American as any Guthrie ever played.