“There is no tale so tall I cannot tell it, nor song so sweet I cannot sing it.”
— Guy Davis as Fishy Waters
It has always seemed to me to be just a little condescending to delegate February as Black History Month. It’s as if to say that one month’s worth of attention to black history is either sufficiently respectful or adequate enough in the light of how integral and meaningful the black experience has been in and to our country ever since the founding of it.
Black history in America was regrettably ignored, if not totally omitted, by white educators and chroniclers up until the mid 20th century. It was therefore left up to African-American musicians, poets, composers, and the countless singers, performers, and story tellers. I’m thinking collectively of the Harlem Renaissance and dramatists like August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry to fill the void. That this was done quite marvelously, even miraculously, without compromising or diluting what it means to be black in a predominantly white America is as much a demonstration of the universality of the human spirit as it is a testament to what is possible in a nation where racial integrity was destined to reside alongside delayed integration.
Now playing at Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick during Black History Month is a disarming one-man entertainment that may not transcend the art of storytelling or the singing of songs, but does them proud. It is written and performed by multi-talented musician/singer/story-teller Guy Davis in “The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues.”
This is a wonderfully conceived and performed celebration of the oral tradition, the legacy of the traveling hobo, and the singing and playing of the blues as expressed by Davis’s fictional character, hobo Fishy Waters. Without being a spoiler as to how he got that name, let’s just say that that information is disclosed by the very congenial Fishy in one of the many diverting tall tales and tender songs that reflect his adventures on-the-road while traveling through the deep South in 1930s Depression era America.
Although the show has a loose narrative thread, it mainly comprises 14 excellent, melodic, evocative Delta and Ragtime-styled blues songs, as sung by the good-looking, husky-voiced Davis and expertly played on an acoustic guitar. While Davis includes a couple of songs from the traditional blues canon as with “Walkin’ Blues” by the legendary Robert Johnson, most are by Davis and serve as a link and as a musical subtext for some very funny tall tales that some may recognize for also being legendary. Many of the song titles are self explanatory: “Ramblin’ All Over,” “Railroad Story,” “Dust My Broom,” “Let Me Stay Awhile,” “Come and Get It,” as is also the closing and most poignant song “Watch Over Me.” Behind these is Davis’s intention to provide glimpses into the yearnings of a young man who at the age of 17 picks himself up and leaves a life of picking cotton as a tenant farmer and heads for Nashville to make music with his guitar.
That Nashville is not destined to be Fishy’s destination is less important than the masterly performed songs and dramatically told tales, whether of the short or tall variety. It is 1959 when Fishy recalls for us his adventures on the road. The setting (splendidly designed by Sarah L. Lambert) is the backyard of a home where Fishy has gotten temporary work.
Fishy makes it clear that he is not a bum but a hobo. The difference, as he explains it, is that a bum won’t work, and the hobo takes jobs wherever he can find them. The leaf-strewn set includes a work bench, an outdoor stove, a table with a working wind-up Victrola and above it all a huge road sign that reads: “World’s Highest Standard of Living: There’s No Way Like the American Way,” picturing a yellow Chrysler. It affords Fishy, in his old hat and frayed working clothes, an evocative ambiance. Black and white photos of the 1930s are also projected for added visual effects.
Fishy is just as eager to share a cup of hot coffee with a stranger as he is to offer a nip of something a bit stronger to a receptive member of the audience. More important is his eagerness to recount for us as passers-by some of the adventures of Fishy Waters as he experienced it. Whether witnessing the escape of convicts from a chain gang with blood hounds in hot pursuit, or coming upon the body of a mutilated young boy hanging from a tree, the victim of a lynching, they and other experiences provide chilling memories of the Jim Crow era. Many other stories are fabulist, very funny, and winningly told.
Notwithstanding Davis’s virtuosity with the acoustic guitar, he proves he is a master with the harmonica and uses it for some awesomely onomatopoetic embellishments, such as the sounds of a train going down the tracks, the attitude of pigs, as well as that of a lazy chicken laying an egg (believe it). Fishy’s hilarious encounters and even conversations with a raccoon, a bird, even a drunken silkworm provide refreshing pauses between his experiences drawn from a life in a time of great suffering and pain. At each sad or happy turn in the road, Davis engages us completely with his talent to amuse, spin a good yarn, as well as give to his own (in addition to the few others) distinctive blues their due.
Davis is no stranger to the Crossroads audience, as he is the son of legendary actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and appeared with them at the theater in “Two Ha-Ha’s and a Homeboy” in 1995. If you happened to see the glorious 2009 Broadway revival of “Finian’s Rainbow,” it was Davis who played the harmonica-playing sharecropper who accompanies the ballerina and helps her speak.
“The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues” is a show that Davis has been working on for the past 20 years. It has evolved to its most finely polished state under the expert guidance and direction of Ricardo Khan. The beautiful Ruby Dee was present and duly acknowledged at the opening night performance.
“The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues,” through Sunday, February 26, Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $50. 732-545-8100.