The Street Man has a lot of 'Spunk' Very Chic: Composer and performer, set to sing the anthem at Camden Yards next month, will be the 'Guitar Man' in show opening Wednesday at Center Stage.

March 24, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Dressed in a lavender warm-up suit and strumming a 1933 mustard-colored metal guitar, Chic Street Man sits on a wide windowsill in Center Stage's rehearsal hall, working out the bluesy chords he will use when he sings the national anthem at Camden Yards next month.

His improvisational technique is similar to the method he used in 1989 when acclaimed playwright and director George C. Wolfe asked him to compose the music for "Spunk," the show Wolfe adapted from three short stories by Harlem-Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston.

Since then, Chic (pronounced "chick") has played the character aptly named "Guitar Man" in more than a half dozen productions of "Spunk" in cities from London to Los Angeles. Now, after a three-year break, he's doing "Spunk" again, this time at Center Stage, where it opens Wednesday.

Chic had only appeared in one other professional theatrical production -- a musical biography of Hank Williams called "Lost Highway" at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum -- when that theater contacted him about collaborating with Wolfe.

"We clicked real well," Chic says of his relationship with Wolfe, who is now artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. "George would say, 'Give me something from the country, something exciting and up-tempo, fast tempo.' And I would improvise."

That improvisation resulted in musical underscoring, some original songs -- in a style Chic calls "country blues" -- using Hurston's prose as lyrics, as well as two entirely new songs, "Hey Baby" and "How Do You Git to the Get," which opens the show and was created jointly by Chic and Wolfe.

Chic, who is also musical director of Center Stage's production, says in many ways this production is similar to the others he has done. All the versions use an ensemble of six to perform the three Hurston stories: "Sweat," about an abusive marriage; "Story in Harlem Slang," about two zoot-suited men-about-town who try to con a meal out of a hard-working woman on her day off; and "The Gilded Six-Bits," about a young couple whose happy marriage is threatened by an ostentatious stranger.

The one significant difference at Center Stage is that this play with music has more music than ever, according to director Seret Scott. More music was added because the cast -- which includes Ebony Jo-Ann, who played the title role in Center Stage's 1990 production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" -- is so talented vocally. Most of the additions, Chic says, are lines of dialogue that the cast sings.

Center Stage's production should be distinctive for another reason. Hurston, who is best known for her semi-autobiographical novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," attended Morgan State University in 1917, when it was Morgan Academy.

Chic believes the local connection "will make everybody feel a certain closeness to the production -- the audience included."

On the ball

Being a "Spunk" specialist is one in a long list of career directions Chic has followed in his 49 years. The earliest of these was baseball, which he chose not to pursue beyond the semiprofessional level. "I had the talent for it, but I didn't have the conviction," the lanky 6-foot-2 performer acknowledges.

Baseball would have taken him in the footsteps of his father, who was a pitcher in the former Negro Leagues. When Chic found he'd be singing the national anthem at the Orioles game April 28, he called his dad. "I said, 'See, I told you I'd make it to the professional baseball diamond,' " the performer says with a smile.

Like his ability in baseball, Chic's musical talent appears to be genetically based. His mother, Jannie, sang with Fats Waller when she was a teen-ager, and Waller invited her to tour with him. "But all my mother saw was being on the road with 40 men, and she declined," Chic says.

His mother gave him his first guitar when he was 6, but the instrument was vandalized in a burglary a few years later. "Another guitar didn't make its way into the house until I was 16," he says. At that point, he learned a few chords from his older brother, Ashley, who still plays avocationally; a younger brother, Big D (for "Dwight"), has a band called the Marsels in Boston. "Physically, [the guitar] came easy to me," Chic says.

By the time he was 24, Chic -- who was raised in Boston -- had

flunked out of Northeastern University, served in the Air Force and graduated with honors from the University of California at Santa Cruz with a major in psychology. In 1973, he left the United States and traveled to Europe, touring the continent in a Volkswagen bus. Having never completely given up music, he tried it professionally, cutting his first record in France that same year.

France is also where he came up with the final version of his unusual professional name. Born Charles Streetman, he had been nicknamed "Chicken" when he was a toddler by an uncle who teased him about being afraid of the noise of the elevated train outside his home in Boston's Roxbury section.

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