In the sticky heat of the summer of 2018, Charlie Romano ’19 and Eric Krebs ’21 took a road trip from Romano’s home in Chicago to the Mississippi Delta — a nearly 1,000-mile trip that included stops in St. Louis; Memphis, Tennessee; Clarksdale, Mississippi and Indianola, Iowa. Their trek ended in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, the birthplace of early 20th-century blues guitarist Robert Johnson.
Still, this summer journey did not just acquaint the two friends with the backdrops of blues’ history — it also functioned as a research trip. Romano, after studying Johnson in a jazz history course with School of Music professor Thomas Duffy, decided to write a musical informed by Johnson’s intriguing story. This musical, “Call Me From The Grave,” will be performed at the Off-Broadway Theatre from Feb. 28 to March 2.
“I realized that this person, or what was left of him after he died, was one of the major forces that shaped the sound of what would become rock and roll in the ’60s,” Romano said. “Especially artists in the second British Wave — I think Eric Clapton has a whole album of Robert Johnson songs. I was astounded that he was so influential but so few people knew who he was and the best way I thought to tell a musician’s story was through music.”
Romano is a music major and an avid student of Johnson’s music traditions. Romano learned to play music by ear in his childhood church; Johnson is thought to have been influenced by his Christian background and contributed to blues, a genre with established oral traditions. Due to these similarities, Romano felt equipped to compose the music for his production.
For other aspects of the project, Romano gathered a team of people he trusted. Jordan Harris ’20 and Christopher Puglisi DRA ’20 wrote the book; Anita Norman ’19 agreed to direct; John Cooper ’21 joined as the show’s producer; and Krebs took on the role of orchestrator.
The team then gathered a cast of actors from all four class years. Cooper noted that he is most proud of the opportunities the show has provided to first years — one of whom is the show’s harmonica player.
According to Harris, though the team finished a draft of the show last August, it ultimately took almost a full year to finish.
“The story we had on Aug. 31 is not at all what will be on stage in a few days, and I think that’s magical because it shows how transformative this process really has been,” Harris said. “Sometimes Chris and I would craft a scene around music Charlie has written, but a lot of the time it was actually the other way around — Charlie would ask us to write a scene or monologue for a character and he would build a song around the text we wrote or use the text as a basis for song and turn it into music. The process has really been collaborative.”
Johnson — who is being portrayed in the musical by Xavier Washington ’20 — left very little behind after his death. Romano drew from Johnson’s 29 surviving musical recordings, folklore and a few primary documents — including a letter Johnson wrote on his deathbed to Jesus Christ — to inform the arc of the musical. Because of the lack of historical materials available, “Call Me From The Grave” does not claim to be an accurate depiction of historical events, but a representation of the artist’s story.
According to folklore, Johnson was known among his peers as an untalented instrumentalist. One day, Johnson left town and returned home a better guitar player than anyone, starting a rumor that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil. According to Romano, incorporating this intriguing plot point posed artistic difficulties.
“This myth of selling your soul to the devil is crazy and drastic,” Romano said. “I wanted him to be redeemed at the end, and that’s difficult to pull off. It’s sometimes difficult for people to sympathize with a character who sells their soul to the devil, but I want people to sympathize with Robert.”
Romano hopes that the performance will pique the interest of the audience enough to influence a few Google searches of Johnson.
“At the end of the day, we’re telling the story of a man who lived,” he said. “He didn’t necessarily have an extraordinary background, but he had an extraordinary legacy.”
According to Romano, creating a platform for Johnson’s relatively obscure story also creates a space for people of color within Yale’s musical theatre community. “Call Me From The Grave” has an all-black cast. Romano said that before participating in shows such as “Dreamgirls” and “In the Heights,” he had only seen a few black students in Yale’s musical theatre scene.
Working on “Dreamgirls” and “In the Heights” was a formative experience for Romano. He said he wanted to create an additional way to showcase the talents of Yale’s black musical theatre community, especially due to the underrepresentation of minorities in this art form.
Performances will begin at 8 p.m. each night, including a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday at the Off-Broadway Theater, 41 Broadway Street.
Rianna Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org