The world premiere of ‘Clay’s Place: Inside My Blue Mind’ by Angela Wilson of The AngelWing Project is a slice of life in the Black community of Memphis that takes place about a year after the murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi. Clay (Robert Smith) and his cousin Turner (Evan Carrington) left their home in Greenville, Mississippi for Chicago, but made it only as far as Memphis. Clay has borrowed money to open a bar, and has brought his wife Edna to see it; she’s surprised that he got a loan and asked if he went to the “colored bank” to get it. When Mr. Whyman (Garrett Matthews), a White man, walks in, she is just as surprised that he is involved in the loan, questioning Clay as to his role.
Clay was also trying to build up the bar so he could showcase blues musicians to help with revenue and as a tribute to the legendary jazz and blues artists who played in the Beale Street clubs and restaurants, creating what was known as the “Memphis Blues” style. Clay’s Place also serves up the best pie in Memphis—made by Edna. Unfortunately, his lack of transparency about the financing will have dire repercussions. Turner will eventually let go of his own secret and find a way forward with his wife, Maxine (Nefertari Rasaq).
The cast brings this material alive gloriously and works seamlessly as an ensemble.
One thing that struck me while watching this (presented in person and live-streamed) was that once again, women are holding up more than half the sky. The play focuses on the men to a great extent, but it’s the women and the way they pick up the pieces and keep life moving that is bedrock.
In the meantime, Turner (Evan Carrington), Clay’s close-as-a-brother cousin, and his wife, Maxine, are having marital problems. She’s kicked him out and he’s despondent. A gifted clothing designer and seamstress, she’s not too happy either. She’s also concerned about her brother, Lorne (Joshua Street, quite a decent singer), who is a senior in high school. She wants him to apply to college, but he has dreams of making it big in jazz and blues. There’s enough tension in that one family unit to make a whole play.
Rounding out the cast is Lucky Mo (Khalil Alston who has wonderful comic timing), Deacon Sid (Vincent Stovall), Wilbur (Aaron Keith Ward), and Ronnie (Reginald Baskerville). All are regulars with their own table at Clay’s Place. Katana Pressley plays Georgia who has a checkered past but is determined to leave that behind and build a more stable life. She provides the occasional verbal slap down the regulars need when they forget their manners. Featured player, Miss Marcella Harold (in her theatrical debut), a recording artist and singer, belts out a blues song as Miss Lola.
“Clay’s Place: Inside My Blue Mind” doesn’t do a deep or obvious dive into Jim Crow and the swaggeringly overt racism of 1956 (and the entire Civil Rights era when this play is set), but presents the realities fairly subtly. When Mr. Whyman enters the club you can sense the shift and the closing down, the false, brittle smiles that never reach the eyes, and the suspicion that erupts as to why he stopped in when he leaves. You can hear it in the resignation or offhand bitterness when Maxine talks about her dreams of designing clothes. You see it in the regulars at their table as they pay serious attention to the tabletop while holding the tension in their shoulders and necks. Unfortunately, you can predict the ending, but the cast, under the direction of Angela Wilson, keeps the show’s pace barreling toward the denouement. The audience loved it and gave it a standing ovation.
The cast brings this material alive gloriously and works seamlessly as an ensemble. You could swear you’re a fly on the wall in a neighborhood bar that’s a haven for folks to relax and take off the masks required to negotiate the wider world.
The fabulous costumes were by House of Bankerd, with costume design by Lisa Ann Dickinson who dressed her characters as sharp as their wit. The wigs, designed by Marie Bankerd, are gorgeous and look natural. Lorraine Imwold was the special effects make-up designer.
Mzz B Productions provided the live band for the show which included drummer Randy Gardner, harmonicist Tim Fadden, bassist Charles Curtis, keyboardist Eric Harrell, and Ronnie Mariano on guitar. The blues songs that were played as background and during the live music interludes underscored the importance of blues music in the lives of Black people, giving voice to the pain and just sheer amount of physical and emotional toil that went into simply surviving.
The bisected set includes both the bar and the living room of Turner and Maxine’s apartment and the small details show great care to get the period right. Eric Birkin of Chesapeake Arts Center (where the show is staged) designed the set. Matt Boenning, Deb Hofler, and Alexis Slacum deftly handled the lighting and sound. The videographer was Anthony Smoot with photography by Marvin Bowser and the graphic artist was Jon Winger.
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours with a 10-minute intermission.
Show Advisory: Adult language, references to lynching and other violence against Black people; gunshots; blood; and smoking.
“Clay’s Place: Inside My Blue Mind” was performed on October 24, 2021 at the Chesapeake Arts Center, Brooklyn Park, MD. It was produced by The AngelWing Project. For more information, please click here.