(Originally written by Scott Gudell in May of 2019)
Director Kevin Glover has said that “music guides you – it gives you a frame of reference” as he set out to write Revival: The Resurrection of Son House and to give us an idea about who this complex man was. For those of us who did see blues icon Son House and Rochester Music Hall of Fame inductee perform, (no, I didn’t see him in the 1930s but I did see him in the 1970s,) much of his power had shifted from his bodacious presentation in the early part of the 20thcentury to his flickering aura but still strong presence during the later part of the century. But he was still in command of songs right up to the end, including “John The Revelator,” Death Letter” and “Preachin’ Blues”. You’ll hear these and more Son House songs (with current help from music director Billy Thompson) between May 2 – June 2 as Rochester’s GEVA Theatre salutes one of the pillars of the blues, Eddie “Son” House.
As the play opens, Glover’s passion play choses to surround Son House with a quartet of angels instead of a dozen apostles. The angel’s question whether House is worthy of a glorious resurrection. Admit the former reverend / blues singer to heaven or sentence him to have his flesh burn for eternity. The debate begins. We’re quickly escorted back to 1917 as a fifteen-year-old House first ventures into the world of preaching. If the parched fields of the Mississippi delta promise bloody hands from toiling in gritty dirt, surely the holy pulpit will be more welcoming and comfortable. His life story begins to unfold as angels, devils, spirits, sinners, singers, women. alcohol and others drift in and out of his long life. He eventually finds his own passion for singing and presenting the blues, the antithesis of the world of righteous religion, and faithfully follows that road. With help from record producers, juke joint owners and friends, such as Willie Brown and Charlie Patton, House learns how to harness and ride the thunder and lighting of the blues and delivers it via his legendary voice that was surely heard all the way to the heights of the heavens and, probably, to the twisted depths of hell. A few recording contracts elevate his stature in the 1930s and then – he disappears. By the time several blues fans re-discover him in Rochester, New York in 1964, the guitar is gone, but shaky hands and unsteady feet are most surely present since alcohol and House had remained very close. But the resurrection on earth began, new recordings were made, concert appearances at festivals to ancient turn-of-the-century buildings took place and a blues revival rippled from the US to the UK. The renewed interest in the blues helped create the foundation for the British Invasion as House and other veteran blues artists were re-discovered and re-recorded. As for House, the return may have been flawed, but it was mighty and assured his place in the history books.
We’ll leave reviews for others, but the core of the play, protagonist Cleavant Derricks, is powerful, passionate and potent. He IS Son House and his presentation is nothing short of stunning. If you’re wondering where Son House’s spirit is right now, it most certainly dwells inside Derricks.