Wilmington playwright David Robson brings to light the story of guitarist Lonnie Johnson
By Ken Mammarella
A forgotten but tremendously influential guitar hero and his conflicted and complex relationship with a Philadelphia DJ is the heart of a play getting its world premiere by City Theater Company.
Blues in My Soul: The Legend and Legacy of Lonnie Johnson runs March 18, 19, 25 and 26.
“I’ve become a little obsessed with Lonnie Johnson, maybe because I can identify with him,” said playwright David Robson. “We all want to have some kind of meaning, some kind of impact. When you look at the things he did, who he was and who he influenced, there’s no doubt he had an impact.”
Johnson was “the first guitarist to bring the guitarist forward” in performance, Robson said. Musicians he influenced are legends themselves, including Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley (who recorded several Johnson songs), T-Bone Walker, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, B.B. King and Eric Clapton.
Robson was inspired by a 2013 production of The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith at People’s Light and felt there was a dramatic hook in the life of Johnson, her colleague.
The catalyst for his show is Chris Albertson, a DJ and record producer, who in 1959 tracked down Johnson, who had given up on music and was a janitor at a Center City hotel.
“Like many Black artists, much of what Lonnie had done had been taken from him,” Robson said. “He’d been duped by shady record executives and promoters.”
So Albertson had to earn his trust, then convince him to return to making music. “The play is really an imagined conversation,” with music.
Robson wrote the first draft in 2014, and it sat in a drawer until he ran into Joe Trainor, City Theater’s veteran music director, and they talked about working together. Robson offered his script.
In 2021, they gathered a cast at Robson’s North Wilmington home for a reading that gave Robson ideas on rewriting. (Robson’s very familiar with writing: He lists 21 plays on DavidRobsonplay.org; has won two playwriting fellowships and three grants from the Delaware Division of the Arts; has written a dozen books; and is an English professor at Delaware County Community College.)
The play’s tension includes the two characters’ differing backgrounds (Albertson was born in 1931 in Iceland and grew up in Europe; Johnson was born in 1899 in New Orleans, and most of his family died in the 1918 flu epidemic). “As the two men meet, conflicts arise, forcing each to reconcile issues of authenticity, injustice and legacy,” according to the play’s online summary.
Robson thinks the City Theater Company production will include 14 Johnson songs worked into the storyline. It stars Joe Beckett as Johnson and Righteous Jolly (just seen in City Theater’s Once) as Albertson.
“These two characters surely are quite different, but the common bond of Lonnie’s music and The Blues at large connect their respective souls,” Jolly wrote in an email. “In sharing vulnerability, they discover the human connection which trumps all the ugliness in the world. I hope the audience feels aligned, I hope they feel connected.”
“Music creates community, and we’ve all been kind of up and down in the last few years because of Covid,” Robson said. “I hope that this play brings us back together and restores a sense of community that’s been absent from our lives.”
The playwright’s obsession included communicating with Albertson before his 2019 death and finding Johnson’s grave, in an overgrown cemetery in Feasterville, Pa., with a headstone installed by fans who knew his music, but not the man.
“It was a perfect metaphor of what happened to his legacy and what’s been forgotten,” Robson said.
“I feel kind of a kinship, … trying to get into the heads of these guys. Writing is all about trying to imagine and empathize, and through that trying to find some kind of human connection.”
— The City Theater production of Blues in My Soul runs March 18, 19, 25 and 26 at the Wings Black Box at the Delaware Contemporary, 200 S. Madison St., Wilmington. Tickets are $40 ($30 for students and military) at City-Theater.org