Playwright and poet Robert Earl Price doesn't play any musical instruments, but a musician's mystique surrounds him and his work like a soundtrack. "I get taken for a musician by other musicians all the time," he says. "When they ask, I always say, 'Yes -- I play pencil.'"
It's not just that Price, a lifelong fan of bebop, tries to infuse his poetry and envelope-pushing plays with rhythms closer to musical structures than conventional narrative. He also finds inspiration in the lives of some of America's musical giants. Price's plays are like tribute albums that improvise so dramatically on the source material that they sound like something completely original.
As playwright-in-residence at 7 Stages for nearly two decades, Price has used theater to "cover" Charlie Parker (Yardbird's Vamp), Thelonious Monk (Blue Monk) and autistic 19th-century performer Blind Tom Wiggins (Hush: Composing Blind Tom Wiggins). He switches musical idioms to the Delta blues of Robert Johnson for his latest work, Come On in My Kitchen, having its world premiere Feb. 16 at 7 Stages under the direction of Del Hamilton.
Price never takes a straight biographical approach, and Come On in My Kitchen isn't actually about Robert Johnson. "That's just to give people a familiar frame of reference," says Price. "I can't avoid Robert Johnson because the play has a blues motif." In addition to the show's blues tunes, Come On in My Kitchen offers a 21st-century rendition of the Robert Johnson mythos -- particularly the legend that the young Delta bluesman sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in exchange for musical mastery.
Kitchen juxtaposes elements of Johnson's life with several prominent, present-day African-American figures whose biographical details -- and initials -- just happen to evoke Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice, who may have struck Faustian bargains of their own. "I'm interested in how people come to power and the strategic concessions they make to remain there. The idea is that their dreams are filled with images of deals or contracts gone sour, and those dreams draw them back to the day in 1938 when Robert Johnson died."
Price also challenges the power dynamic of organized religion in Come On in My Kitchen with a character who embodies the black clergy, played by Kenny Leon via video screen.
"First I thought I'd do Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, then I thought of the founders of the black mega-churches who supported Bush," says Price. "I think a lot of the African-American clergy needs to be taken to task. African-American males are killed by other African-American males far more often than the Klan -- but let the Klan threaten one person, and the clergy starts marching. I don't quite get that."
Price took a roundabout route to his current career as playwright. He lived in Atlanta from childhood through graduation from Clark Atlanta University, then attended the American Film Institute in California. (Classmates included directors David Lynch and Edward Zwick.) While moonlighting as a poet, he became a screenwriter and assistant director for film and television, winning an American Film Institute award for screenwriting along the way. While writing for the series "Palmerstown, U.S.A." for Alex Haley, Price developed a friendship with the Roots author.
"Alex was a beautiful man, and sometimes he'd give me encouragement," recalls Price. "I remember once saying to him, 'Alex, I have a newborn son, I haven't sold anything in a while, writing is hard!' He told me, 'When I finished Roots, I was $50,000 in debt and had gone through two marriages!'"
In 1985, Price's mother became ill and he returned to Atlanta at a time when he had grown disillusioned with the creative concessions of Hollywood. And for the first time, he found it feasible to make a living in his hometown. "Within a year or two, I was traveling on the Georgia poetry circuit. I saw parts of Georgia I'd never seen before because of segregation. In some of those places, it was like I was an honorary white person -- as long as I was on campus."
Not surprisingly, listening to music isn't just one of Price's favorite pastimes. It plays a crucial part in his writing process. "Before I started writing Blue Monk, I spent months listening to Thelonius Monk, but after I started the play, I listened to reggae, because the droning, pulse-like beat gave me energy. For Kitchen, I ended up listening to a lot of West African music. It has lots of stringed instruments, and Delta blues guitarists like Robert Johnson came from that tradition."
Currently, Price is thinking about writing a play about innovative jazz trumpeter Charles "Buddy" Bolden, although he only recently embraced the idea of fixing his star to famous musicians in his stagecraft. "At first I didn't want to write Hush, because it would further establish the fact that I write about dead musicians. I could have chosen to write plays about painters, and gone through their pantheon and done the same thing."
When you hear Price talk about jazz or blues, though, you suspect that when he's riffing on African-American music, his pencil really sings.
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