It’s haunted him, his whole life.
In “Sugarbelly and Other Tales My Father Told Me,” a unique and powerful theatrical event that is currently being presented by the Crossroads Theatre Company at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, blues singer-songwriter Guy Davis says that when he was growing up, members of his family repeatedly told him the story of a young woman named Sugarbelly, who was mysteriously murdered. He still thinks about it all the time. And so, he says, he created this one-man play to give her a kind of immortality — and, one suspects, release some of his pain.
Davis — the son of celebrated actors, writers and activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee — is a veteran, Grammy-nominated blues performer who seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of acoustic blues styles, and an ability to perform them all expertly. He also has a warm, relaxed stage presence, whether he is performing in concert or in a play such as this one. (Crossroads has previously presented his “The Adventures of Fishy Waters”).
As you would expect, “Sugarbelly,” which is directed by A. Dean Irby, mixes storytelling and music. The set, designed by Maruti Evans, features Davis in front of a semi-circle of the various stringed instruments he plays in the course of the show, with the walls crammed with empty picture frames, evocative of untold secrets from the past.
In the first act, Davis introduces us to Sugarbelly — a young, poor, mixed race woman who becomes a prostitute in Prohibition Era Texas— and various members of her town. He vividly depicts the medicine show that comes to town, with its risqué entertainment and over-the-top snake-oil salesmanship: People know that the “elixir” they are being sold is a scam, but buy it anyway because they’re so impressed with the way it’s sold.
Davis sings everything from a gruff work song — with audience members encouraged to sing along in call-and-response manner — to a tender love song. The act ends with Sugarbelly’s death.
Davis returns for the second act with the house lights on, and stands in the audience talking, for a while, before returning to the stage. Act 2, it turns out, is shorter and features less music than Act 1, and serves mainly to put what came before in context. Davis talks about his own youth, and members of his family, and hearing the Sugarbelly story. He says that for this play, he changed her name, and the name of the murderer, and moved the location from Georgia to Texas.
Davis gives not only Sugarbelly, but also members of his family — whom he sketches vividly — a bit of immortality. Or, in the case of his parents and his uncle Willie (a renowned scientist), some more immortality to add to what they already achieved.
He doesn’t dwell too much on why Sugarbelly’s story resonated so deeply for him — that’s not his style — but it’s easy to see why it did. Every boy or girl feels powerless at times, and faceless, and a victim of a senselessly cruel world, and Sugarbelly is all of those things. It must feel great to bring her out of the shadows and into the light.
Blues music has always had a cathartic quality, of course. Davis has just found a new way to achieve that.
The Crossroads Theatre Company will present “Sugarbaby and Other Tales My Father Told Me” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, June 23-25 at 7:30 p.m., and June 25-26 at 3:30 p.m. Visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org.
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