Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Friday, April 29, 2016

SJI as inspiration for a major 21st century play


"Exhilirating ...  ingenious, impossible to resist!" (San Francisco Chronicle)

"A high energy hallucination ... one of the best musical productions I've ever seen at American Conservatory Theater!" (SF Weekly)


These are just two of many enthusiastic reviews of the musical drama, The Unfortunates. A surrealistic tale of gambling, war, inner (and outer) conflict, disease (inner and outer), the play emerges as a startling metaphor for the strangeness of 21st century life, and the historical flow of events that led us here.

The play's title is derived from the old British song, "The Unfortunate Rake," which - according to popular myth - traveled the ocean and eventually transformed into "St. James Infirmary." I am convinced that the connection between the two songs is more tenuous than has been generally assumed, and that SJI was more firmly rooted in American bedrock. But songs do travel strange paths. They influence each other. They immigrate and emigrate and evolve, the song of today standing squarely on the shoulders of its predecessors. And so SJI serves as a suitable metaphor. Big Joe ("In the corner stood Big Joe McKinney...") is the main character, although it is a strong ensemble production.

You can find a comprehensive overview here (as a pdf): "Insight into the play, the playwrights, and the production" of The Unfortunates.

Below, you can watch four of the five creators of The Unfortunates discuss their play, including its intimate connection to the historical movement of song, and the centrality of "St. James Infirmary" to the genesis and shape of the production.



(Double-click on these videos to see them in their proper dimensions.)

"Bold and bizarre ... diverse and electrifying!" (StarkInsider.com)
"Richly imagined, slightly surreal ... a high octane mashup of music and modern-day myth." (San Francisco Examiner)
"Red-hot! Gospel, hip-hop and blues light this funky steampunk fantasy ... electrifies from start to finish." (Bay Area News Group)

Here is a trailer for an early version of the play, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (like Bob Dylan, they change things as they go along):




"A wonderfully demented antiwar parable steeped in Louis Armstrong's classic 'St. James Infirmary,' this is a surreal 90-minute frolic from the cabaret to the gallows and back. ... The healing power of music is a blessing for us as well as The Unfortunates." (The Mercury News)


"St. James Infirmary" continues to inspire, over a century later.

3 comments:

Pamela Woodland said...

Heard the song? Seen the play? Why not read the book: http://www.stjamesinfirmary.ca/

richard said...

Robert

Yesterday, Stevie Wonder's set at Jazz Fest got rained out so he ended up at Irwin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse to do a surprise set. DId a version of St. James Infirmary. I'm sure video of it will show up.

Robert W. Harwood said...

Thanks, Richard. I'll keep an eye (ear) out.