Success is knocking Theater: With his third play, a 'blusical,' opening this week at Center Stage, 30-year-old Keith Glover is being compared to August Wilson.

December 15, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Playwright Keith Glover is strumming a luminous, emerald-green guitar whose carved back fits so naturally against his body, it seems as if it were molded there.

The guitar is part of a matched pair that plays a crucial role in Glover's "Thunder Knocking on the Door," which opens Wednesday in the Head Theater at Center Stage.

Set in Glover's hometown of Bessemer, Ala., in 1966, the show focuses on the twin offspring of a late fictional blues guitarist. The twins' father was the only musician ever to out-play a mysterious bluesman named Marrvel Thunder. When the action begins, Thunder has won one of the twins' guitars and has come back for the other.

Beginning with the green guitars, "Thunder Knocking on the Door" is a play with a natural, almost organic connection to Glover, 30, a hot young playwright who was recently chosen one of "30 Leaders of the Future" by Ebony magazine.

Marion McClinton, who is directing "Thunder Knocking on the Door" and also has directed both of Glover's previous plays, cites his imagination, craftsmanship and ability to connect with an audience. "He's extremely talented," McClinton says. "I think his importance is unlimited because he is so young and because he is so polished at this age."

Comparing Glover to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, with whom McClinton also has worked, the director adds: "I think he's going to be around for a long time and might wind up in the end having a similar impact."

To get back to those green guitars, Glover is especially proud that the instruments were made for "Thunder Knocking on the Door" by his stepfather, Sherwood Phifer, a musician and luthier. "When he first came into my life I needed a father. Looking back at where the play comes from, it's him," says Glover, whose biological father is an ex-numbers runner who served time for murder.

Glover and Phifer had wanted to work together for years. "I'd hoped it would happen, but didn't foresee this happening," Phifer admits. "I hoped we would do a woodworking project. This far exceeds anything I'd thought about."

Phifer, who has a shop in Garnerville, N.Y., knew exactly what wood he'd use for the guitars when Glover showed him the script. A distinctive curly maple with mineral stains that produce a ripple effect, the wood was so exotic looking, he'd stored it away for several years, aware that most musicians prefer guitars with what he calls "blemish-free" tops.

"I read the play, and then I understood these instruments are supposed to be made of a magical type of tree. I said I've got just the stuff, and it's sitting there and it's been waiting," he says.

Although Glover acknowledges the strong influence Phifer has had on him, the roots of "Thunder Knocking on the Door" go back to the playwright's childhood in Alabama, where he spent his preschool years with his grandmother.

He mentions two uncles in particular. Uncle Bill, a blues lover who worked in the local steel mill, would come over with friends on Friday nights to buy home brew made by Glover's grandmother. Afterward, Glover says, they'd "hang around on the porch," singing and listening to blues on the record player. Their music and the sound of their voices worked their way into "Thunder Knocking on the Door."

Mystical elements

The mystical elements of the play -- which include, in addition to the magical instruments, a character turning to stone and a showdown at the crossroads -- appear to have been inspired by sources ranging from George Bernard Shaw and Wilson to the great blues musician Robert Johnson, who claimed to have "sold myself to the Devil at the crossroads." But Glover insists these elements primarily derive from the "crazy stories" his Uncle Ripper used to tell.

"[Glover] is definitely an original," director McClinton says. "He knows legend, and he's also trying to create myths and legends, which is [an] aspect of the theater world that isn't dealt with as much these days. When you think of the great plays, it's not just about the drama or the issues that these plays bring up, it's that they create new myths."

Glover's Uncle Ripper is in the background of a childhood photo the playwright unearthed for luck with this play. In the photo, Glover is posed with his first guitar, a gift from his grandmother when he was a toddler.

At age 7, Glover began dividing the year between his grandmother's home in Alabama and his mother's in New York. His mother met Phifer, from whom she is now divorced, when she asked him to give Glover guitar lessons. Stepfather and stepson also turned out to share an interest in sports, particularly track, football and boxing -- the subject of Glover's earlier play, "Coming of the Hurricane," which was produced at Washington's Arena Stage last season.

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