by Lynn on October 16, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille

Written and performed by Raoul Bhaneja
Directed by Eda Holmes
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound by Richard Ferren
Also starring: Divine Brown
(Band): Chris Banks
Tom Bona
Jake Chisholm

A ‘beige man’ named Raoul Bhaneja proves he has every right to play, sing and do a show on the Blues.

The Story. Raoul Bhaneja has two distinct lives. One is as an actor, firmly rooted in the theatre. The other is as an accomplished musician immersed in the world of music. Bhaneja has a blues band that tours. In >Life, Death and the Blues Bhaneja combines both worlds. He also gives us a history lesson on the origins of the Blues. He took trips to the southern United States to the historical places of note where American blacks began the Blues. He travelled to south Chicago looking for the building where a celebrated Blues record company did business—a beige man in a cab driven by a white driver, searching for places where the Blues were created, in a part of Chicago where whites are not welcome—Bhaneja also has guts. He told stories of celebrated black musicians who were at the top of the Blues game. He also made note that it wasn’t always blacks who sang, played and wrote about the Blues. Whites occasionally did too, usually American. Canada also had its own Blues superstar harmonica player in the name of Paul Frappier who died too young at 33 when he was murdered.

The Production. A three piece band is stage right complete with microphones. Stage left is a chair, a guitar and some amplification equipment. As the audience files in a man appears on stage wearing a hat, sunglasses, a suit and tie, smoking a cigarette, shuffling from one microphone to another checking they are on. He is stooped. And irreverent. And possibly drunk or on drugs. When we are told to turn off our cell phones by a young man who is also on stage, the sunglass-wearing-guy heckles him in a gruff voice with smarmy remarks about cell phones etc. The young man leaves after imparting the rules of the theatre and the show begins.

The sunglass-wearing-guy goes on for a bit more then takes off his hat and sunglasses and says something like: “Enough with the stereotypes.” Welcome Raoul Bhaneja. Bhaneja explains his being a ‘beige man.’ His father is Pakistani and his mother is Irish. Hence he is beige. He talks of Blues greats sometimes emulating how they played the harmonica. He tells of his adventures in the U.S travelling the Mississippi to soak up the river that informed so many Blues songs. When he travelled to Chicago to find the building that housed that celebrated record company he talks about it with great respect and humour. When he plays, usually one of many harmonicas, he seems to curl over the harmonica. Bhaneja’s body sways to the music as if he is submerged in the music, which in a way, he is.

Through his storytelling Bhaneja is ably accompanied by the band, and the divine singer, Divine Brown. She challenges him about why he feels he can take music created by people of her colour, as his own. It’s a black man’s music, born of pain and sorrow, the Blues, see. This Beige man has no right to think he can play it or do it justice. But Bhaneja proves he does have the right; and he can do the music justice. Brown asks about music in his culture—South Asian. He says there is a lullaby that I believe was sung to him as a kid, but he wouldn’t dare attempt to sing it for fear of not doing it justice. That line alone left me breathless it was so quietly respectful. At Brown’s urging Bhaneja does sing the lullaby with simple accompaniment, no showy embellishments, in a true, pure voice. His rendition left you limp in your seat and tearful, it was so beautifully done.

Brown sings a Gospel song she learned in church—two people singing the music of their roots, sung from the heart and soul. Brown sums it up that way—the music is about roots. The colour—Blues, black, whatever—doesn’t matter if it comes deep from your roots and your experience.

The relationship between the two is playful, respectful, patience from her to him, and a kind of naughty impishness from him to her. He keeps referencing the sexual innuendo in the music. He tries to teach her to play the harmonica—more sexual cheek—lots of stuff about blowing only in this hole and run your tongue along the various holes in the harmonica.

Life, Death and the Blues is guided by the firm but sensitive had of director Eda Holmes. She too knows about the world of music and how to take it and make it accessible and intimate. The mutual respect between Brown and Bhaneja for each other as people and musicians is obvious. Holmes uses that to enhance an already impressive show.

Comment. Life, Death and the Blues is both cheeky and moving. With Brown as his foil, Bhaneja is challenged in his love of this particular kind of music. I loved that dichotomy—he could love and be immersed in the music of the black experience, but didn’t dare try and sing a lullaby from his own culture for fear of not doing it justice. In his journey to learn about all things regarding the Blues he found his own roots. And sang that lullaby and did it justice.

Produced by Theatre Passe Muraille in association with Hope and Hell Theatre Co.

Opened: September 25, 2014
Closes: October 19, 2014
Cast: 1 actor, 1 singer and a three piece band
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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