If interactive is one of the goals of contemporary theater, "It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues" is a champion. Playing at Washington's Arena Stage through Jan.19, it's a foot-stompin', finger-snappin' show. It's also quite stirring in a more private, quiet way.
The production opens by tracing the blues' beginnings with chanting from Africa, and it moves into gospel, soul, rhythm and blues, country western, even electric funk. The evolution and influences are recognizable as seven performers - black and white - belt out some of the best American sound of the century.
The song sheet includes a host of familiar tunes from Bessie Smith, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and Patsy Cline. But after hearing their origins, and what followed, listeners are likely to appreciate a whole new meaning.
Written by a team of collaborators, the show's stars among them, "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" first opened and toured in Denver as an educational program for the public school system.
The instruments - from the washboard to the electric guitar - not only generate sound, but they also serve as props for the musicians who transport the audience from Southern cotton fields to the streets of Chicago.
"The blues does not mean black music," says "Mississippi" Charles Bevel, one of the show's creators and cast members. "It means having the courage or audacity to speak to what is in your heart without consulting your head."
And that, he says, has been a necessary release. "From slavery through legal segregation, to the many present forms of isolation, blacks have developed unique ways of expressing the constant pain and frustration that comes with being perpetually quarantined."
Hardship is the inescapable message, that's true. But hope is also at the core of the blues. Its creators did not just accept the way life was; they wrote and sang songs about their troubles. The musical composition was an act of defiance, even resilience. And at the Arena Stage, the performers croon and cackle, beckoning their listeners to react.
The audience obliges, with reflex and emotion. Rows of people sway back and forth.
"Ummmmmm-hmmmmmm!" comes a voice from the crowd. "All right!" calls out another.
The music is alternately soulful and playful, atonal and melodic. But the message about the American black experience is constant, as slide images are flashed up on a screen. Poverty and prejudice are ubiquitous. One picture shows a wiry and weathered-looking black man hoisting a sign that reads: "If Negro men can carry guns for Uncle Sam, surely they can drive milk wagons for Bowman Dairy."
Director Randal Myler modestly characterizes his role. Most of it, he says, was putting the talent pool together onstage. Once there, he claims, the performers have virtually directed themselves. "Truth is, I get to sit around and listen to a lot of great music."
But at night's end, theatergoers leave with a lot more than tunes to hum. They have had a seminar in song that enriches appreciation for some of the darkest days in American history.