Wayne Harris as Tyrone "Shortleg" Johnson and Some White Boys: A Blues Play
The consummate storyteller and writer, I am not surprised that Wayne Harris's latest work, "Tyrone Shortleg Johnson and Some White Boys: A Blues Play," directed by Mark Kenward, is as good as it is, but how good I couldn't say until the set, ended the band put their shades back on and Shortleg left the stage.
I am not using the term, “set,” figuratively. The show is in an actual night club with a bar, maybe a liquor license –I don’t know if one has to be 21, there is a one drink minimum though.
Blues is how Shortleg works out his pain--mother stories with a soundtrack (smile). Many of Harris's plays look at the relationship between a mother and her son. His first piece, "Mother's Milk," looks at a prodigal son's return home when he learns his mother has breast cancer.
In Tyrone Shortleg this theme returns when we learn that Tyrone's mother abandons her husband ten years her senior and her two children, Tyrone and Sarah, for a younger blues man. Harris's character talks about his weakness for women and his quest for years to find his light skinned pretty mama. "Be careful what you ask for," he warns us, as he takes a swig from a silver decanter.
It's 1967 and Shortleg is preparing for a live show. It's a family event and the kids in the audience don't know or care about his music, nor are they interested in it until the electricity goes out and Shortleg starts to reminiscence about Beaumont, Texas when he was a boy sneaking into Miss Josie's Whore House where he heard the blues for the first time and was hooked.
At 50 Mason Social Club in the Tenderloin, it was easy to imagine girls for hire, easy money for those with sleight of hand skills, and jail bait leaning in the doorway trying to catch a bit of a tune.
Dressed in a pinstriped suit, black vest and white shirt, Mr. Shortleg showed up with lots of heart, despite the white cats who were either too young like guitarist Jeremy Goodwin, barely 18 or too burned out to play the kind of music he needed to conjure wine from clouds.
He made the best of it through this and other disappointments in the past, that and the handy decanter. Blues got Shortleg from Beaumont to St. Louis to Chicago to Europe to San Francisco and to Slim Jenkins's in Oakland –7th Street my destination after the show (smile).
The interaction between Shortleg and his band, especially the bassist, actor, Steve Ekstrand, who couldn't play “nasty” for Shortleg who fusses at him all evening into the next day
At Ms. Josie's, one could pay “$3 for a titty and just $6 to get one's Johnson wet.” Shortleg scoffs at the notion that anyone patronized Josie's for the cold tripe sandwich (smile), though that's what Ms. Josie thought.
"Coochie was never officially on the menu," Shortleg laughed.
Comments like this get the artist in trouble with the “boss man,” (actor Mark Kenward) who is fixing the electrical problem while censoring and threatening Shortleg. Shortleg listens because he needs a job after all these years—he and the promoter “bossman” mention an incident at Newport that I guess wipes Shortleg out—no calls, no work, and definitely no record deals after that engagement.
It’s 1967 now, seven years later and legendary blues singer Tyrone “Shortleg” Johnson has found himself on a second rate teen dance show backed by ‘a bunch of hippies’ . . . and he ain’t Happy! so there is fussin’, fightin’ and signifyin’ throughout the weekend gig! As in the end, Shortleg shows himself the true “bossman” or master of his craft as he drops names, even his bandmates have heard like Lightning Hopkins, Ledbelly, Willie Dixon . . . and other mentors whom he revered, artists who gave him encouragement.
He drops local names like Johnny Otis, Etta James, Bobby Blue Bland, Ester of Ester’s Orbit Room and when I arrive at the West Oakland BART station later on that same evening, the block is still singing Shortleg’s songs. I wish he’d had a hit record . . . his voice silenced by “bossmen” who control the venues and audiences, but no one controls Shortleg for long (smile).
Shortleg’s harmonica player, Richard Trafford-Owen, was at Newport and remembers the artist's performance there. Shortleg gives his audience a lesson in bluesman history, American history at that, as he sings too, songs most remember as they are a part of the classical songbook. The band even loosens up with Rick Goodwin (sax), Jeff Wiemann (drums) and Dennis Aquilina (trumpet) rounding out the sextet. From the first song to the finale we’re clapping and singing, and if the floor had been open—(but it wasn’t) we’re dancing in our seats as Shortleg sings great blues tunes like “Wang Dang Doodle”, “Don’t Start Me Talkin’, “Back Door Man” and many more.
Wayne Harris’s latest work at "Tyrone Shortleg Johnson and Some White Boys: A Blues Play," is another classic that I’m certain will get a theatrical run! He has one more show left at SF Fring Festival, this Friday, Sept. 14, 7 p.m. at the 50 Mason Social House (Mason & Eddy Streets)
It’s a hybrid solo performance backed by a jammin’ 6 piece blues band filled with such great blues tunes as “Wang Dang Doodle”, “Don’t Start Me Talkin’, “Back Door Man”…and many more!