Tuesday, May 10, 2016

An Ache Bent From the Soul Through Brass and Breath

(by Editor-in-Chief Mary Bast)

Blue, the languid, slightly seamy sound of a tear made music, of an ache bent from the soul through brass and breath ... Blue of our darkness, our lust, our losses ....

This quote is from "Tio's Blues" in Evan Guilford-Blake's collection, American Blues, five earthy stories of musical and human blues. Guilford-Blake has won 42 play writing competitions, including the Eamon Keane Award, the Tennessee Williams Competition (twice), the NETC/Aurand Harris Award; and thirty of his plays have been published, one of them Nighthawks, a theatrical version of the story "Nighthawks" in American Blues, and another the full-length drama, American Blues, which won Bottle Tree Productions First Prize in 2009.

Guilford-Blake contributed "A Chattering of Chickadees" to our 2016 print journal, and you'll find many reviews online of his other work. What I'll emphasize here is his experience as both playwright and author of fiction, because fiction writers have much to learn from playwrites, where the power of their work is found primarily in dialogue. All of us have heard the adage, "Show, don't tell," and in theater that has to happen almost entirely through believable dialogue. "If it doesn't reveal character or advance the plot, throw it out." 

American Blues tells five stories, "Sonny's Blues," "Tio's Blues," "Nighthawks," "Animation," and "The Easy Lovin' Blues." Together, they're reminiscent of the AAB blues structure, as in B.B. King's  Everyday I Have the Blues (Everyday, everyday I have the blues, Everyday, everyday I have the blues, When you see me worried, baby, Because it's you I hate to lose). 

The Sonny of "Sonny's Blues" is tired. "He blew till 3:00 on maybe four hours sleep, the adrenalin provided by the rest of the quarter, the between-sets bourbon, the music itself. Then he sat -- had one more drink -- with Harper for almost an hour after that, till he'd come down from the high..."

Then Sonny finds out his stomach pain is cancer that's spread beyond surgical treatment. Still trying to absorb the news, he calls his mother.
"Vernon, that you?" Mama says into the phone. She's the only one ever uses his given name anymore. "How you doin'?"

He doesn't know what he can tell her, or how. I'm gonna die, Mama, in a couple months, and I'm hurtin' bad a lot of the time, he wants to say. But he can't ... He says instead, "I guess I'm doin' okay. Keepin' busy. How you?"
In "Tio's Blues," 28-year-old Tio is older brother to 23-year-old Matt but still a boy in his mental capacity. Tio's been listening to Clifford Brown's "Willow Weep for Me," and Matt finds him lying on the living room floor. He rocks the sobbing Tio.
"Matt?" Tio said finally. "It was choking me... It comes right out of the record player, and, and it was so pretty. I could see it, the notes, they were blue, and it was like his hands, Brownie's, it comes all around me and it holds me very tight, tighter than anything, even you, ev'rything was turning all blue, and, and I couldn't breathe."

[Later] "Matt?" said Tio


... "Why don't anybody love me like the music loves me?"

The dialogue in the other three stories of American Blues is equally revealing of character. In "Nighthawks," picture the Edward Hopper painting of the same name, with a male and female couple, another man sitting separately, and the guy behind the bar. From these few words between the couple, Gil and Donna, we "get" their characters and what's going on in their relationship:
Donna shook him away. "I just -- just get ... tired of this."

"Of what? Y' mean me?"

She sighed. "I mean, of -- this. Sometimes. When you're -- When you ain't around. Y' know?"

"Yeah," said Gil. "I know. I get tired of it too. I been tired of it, of her, for eight years."
In "Animation," Aggie's phone conversation with his ex-wife Merilyn sets the blues theme on the very first page:
"You're home," says Merilyn.

"Uh-huh," Aggie replies.
"I thought you might be out. Job hunting."

He shrugs. "I went to the unemployment office today. I looked on the computer. And through the paper. Nobody's hiring fifty-three year old accounting clerks."
And in "The Easy Lovin' Blues," two intertwining stories pull us through the blues into outright tragedy, echoed in this scene between Amanda, a young woman who lives with her mother Naurean, and horn-player Trumpy who's in a tangled relationship with Ladyblue:
He comes out of the building, his mind on figuring out what he's gonna do, and almost trips over her, sitting on the steps, elbows on her knees and hands wrapped around her head. "Oh, 'Manda--" he begins, then remembers and says "I better g--."

"Oh hi," she says unhappily.

He stops. "Somethin' wrong?"

"Oh, just ..." She shakes her head and looks up at him. "Mama 'n' me had a ... argument, I guess."

"Oh." He should go. Should go.

Among Guilford-Blake's many books are the adult novel Noir(ish) and the middle-grade novel The Bluebird Prince (a retelling of the classic French fairy tale of the same name, also adapted as a play). He's taught playwriting and drama, and is a "Distinguished Resident Playwrights Emeritus" of Chicago Dramatists and a Dramatists Guild member. He and his wife, freelance writer and jewelry designer Roxanna Guilford-Blake, live in the Atlanta area with "little four-legged lady" Winnie and whippet/lab mix Baldrick, "a big ol' dog, as dumb and lovable as they come."

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