Singing ‘Sonny’s Blues’

With its haunting strains of jazz music and mournful depictions of urban despair and drug addiction, “Sonny’s Blues” might have been written last week.

James Baldwin’s short story, which recounts a black man’s attempts to keep his younger brother on the straight and narrow, was published in 1957. But in the vibrant new theatrical adaptation by The City’s own Word for Word, produced in association with the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, it feels startlingly up to the minute: “Trouble,” as its narrator observes, “is the one thing that never does get stopped.”

Baldwin’s story is an American classic, and Friday’s opening at Lorraine Hansberry’s Sutter Street venue showed why. Directed by Margo Hall, performed by a resourceful cast of six and presented in Word for Word’s customarily brilliant style — exactly as written, with every word intact — “Sonny’s Blues” is both a moving look at the struggles faced by blacks in the years between World War II and Vietnam and a timeless meditation on the ways art can transcend those struggles. Coming at the start of Black History Month, it’s also a stunning tribute to Baldwin, the author of groundbreaking works such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

The title character of “Sonny’s Blues” is a young jazz musician in 1950s Harlem. But the central character — simply called the Narrator — is Sonny’s older brother, a high school algebra teacher and Army veteran who returns from military service to find the world, and his beloved brother, changing in ways he can’t understand.

The story, which begins with the news that Sonny has been arrested on a heroin charge, is told in flashbacks, with scenes depicting the blows life has dealt the two men: a grandfather’s murder at the hands of a white mob, a daughter lost to polio, the death of both their parents. Even as he tries to comply with his mother’s last wish — “Hold onto your brother and don’t let him fall,” she tells him — the narrator sees Sonny turning to drugs and slipping away. Yet the poetic final scene, which shows Sonny on his own turf, playing the piano in a Harlem nightclub, suggests an almost mystical redemption.

The cast is strong throughout. Peter Macon gives eloquent voice to the narrator’s role, and Da’Mon Vann creates the enigmatic Sonny in urgent, edgy strokes.

Allison L. Payne, Margarete Robinson, Robert Hampton and Mujahid Abdul-Rashid play various family members, musicians, students and street people. Hall’s staging is fluent, and an original score by Bay Area composer Marcus Shelby adds a rich sense of atmosphere; the transformative power of music is at the core of “Sonny’s Blues,” and by the end of the90-minute production, Shelby’s lyrical, elegiac writing feels just as expressive and as essential as Baldwin’s own.

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; closes March 10

Tickets: $22 to $36

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

artsentertainmentOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott listens at a rally to commemorate the life of George Floyd and others killed by police outside City Hall on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Will the Biden Administration help SF speed up police reform?

City has struggled to implement changes without federal oversight

Lowell High School (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Students, families call for culture shift at Lowell after racist incident

District to explore changes including possible revision of admissions policy

Alan Wong was among California National Guard members deployed to Sacramento to provide security the weekend before the presidential inauguration. (Courtesy photo)
CCSF board member tests positive for COVID-19 after National Guard deployment

Alan Wong spent eight days in Sacramento protecting State Capitol before Inauguration Day

Due to a lack of votes in his favor, record-holding former Giant Barry Bonds (pictured at tribute to Willie McCovey in 2018) will not be entering the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the near future.<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
Ex-Giants star Barry Bonds again falls short of Hall of Fame

After striking out yet again in his bid to join Major League… Continue reading

San Francisco firefighter Keith Baraka has filed suit against The City alleging discrimination on the basis of race and sexual orientation.<ins></ins>
Gay black firefighter sues city for discrimination

A San Francisco firefighter who says he was harassed and discriminated against… Continue reading

Most Read