Directing classic ‘Sonny’s Blues’ — word for word

To take the opportunity to direct a production of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” was a no-brainer for Margo Hall.

“I know this story,” says Hall, recently speaking on the phone during a break from rehearsal. “I love James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and a lot of writers of the period,” she says. As an African-American child growing up in Detroit, and a girl whose father was a jazz musician, Hall felt intimately familiar with the material in the story.

“Sonny’s Blues,” which opens this week in San Francisco, is presented by the acclaimed local troupe Word for Word in association with the Lorraine Hansberry Theater. Word for Word stages productions that bring short stories to life, literally word for word, while the Lorraine Hansberry Theater focuses on the African-American experience.

For Hall, an actor as well as director, Baldwin’s tale of two brothers in the 1950s in Harlem — the elder a teacher and family man, the younger a troubled musician — provides the perfect framework from which to work in a collaborative fashion with her team of actors.

“I can’t read a story without seeing it,” Hall says.

She’s particularly taken by Baldwin’s soulful prose. She says, “I always feel his soul in his writing. He talks about an ‘icy dread.’ I’ve never heard anything described that way.”

The character Sonny, she says, talks about heroin. Baldwin makes the pedestrian poetic, comparing it to the need to play an instrument. “Sometimes you’ll do anything to play, even cut your mother’s throat.”

Complementing Baldwin’s words and Hall’s visuals in the “Sonny’s Blues” is an original score by Bay Area composer-bassist Marcus Shelby, who will supply effects — “the screaming sound of a subway,” Hall says — as well as the jazz tones of a nightclub scene.

In the spring, Word for Word will bring “Sonny’s Blues” to France in a production marking the 20th anniversary of Baldwin’s death in Paris.

Having been there several times before to perform — in English —Hall is looking forward to the trip. She says, “They love it. They read the stories in French; there are a lot of ex patriots, too. We have a sold-out house.”

IF YOU GO

Sonny’s Blues

Presented by: Word for Word

Where: Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; previews Feb. 5-7; opens Feb. 8; closes March 10

Tickets: $22 to $36

Contact: (415) 474-8800 or www.lhtsf.org or www.zspace.org

lkatz@examiner.com

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