Bluesman Bobby Rush’s stories extend farther than cotton fields to Chitlin’ Circuit, a book to Grammy wins, an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities to Bobby Rush Boulevard. Indeed, he’s more than his two Grammy wins, 14 Blues Music Awards, 400 plus recordings, and 27 studio albums. He’s survived both the Jim Crow era and a serious bus crash that took a bandmate’s life. He’s been wrongfully arrested and left for dead by police. He’s lost three children. He’s been ripped off for millions. He’s not just a survivor; he’s a fighter.
Slippin’ Through the Cracks, a new musical about the legendary bluesman, is currently in development. Rush wrote the music and lyrics, as well as the book with Stephen Lloyd Helper, who conceived the Broadway hit Smokey Joe’s Café. Helper serves as co-director of the production, and the musical is co-directed by Arminda Thomas, with musical direction by Felton Offard.
“The show encompasses from the time I was a sharecropper kid picking cotton to today,” Rush explains to me, “my blues journey from then to now.” His little-known saga, both exhilarating and harrowing, is brought to life by a cast of 14 actors and five musicians who play family members, business associates, fellow artists, etc. “One thing I learned is that no one in the cast needs to look like the real people,” he says. “You don’t have to look like me to be me, you don’t have to look like Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King and all the rest, to be them. What matters is being true to the story. I emphasize this. Steve does, too. So, the cast brings it all to life super well.”
It all started when Stephen Helper heard a Bobby Rush song, “Sue,” on the radio a couple summers ago. “He flipped out. He thought if he heard that song in the theater, he would love it. So, then, he found out some more about my life. He thought I had a great story that other people needed to know. When he contacted me about the idea, I thought he was crazy. But I could also tell he was for real. So, we started to get to know each other and work together. He raised money to develop the show.
“He thought it was important to begin the show in the South, in Mississippi. Grow the show from the roots of the blues. I respected that. He made a deal with New Stage Theatre in Jackson who hosted a three-week workshop to test out the script and the score. The songs are all songs I have written. You will recognize a lot of them! The workshop went great. But I wanted my family to see it, to see if they like it. So, they came to a presentation and they got very excited, too.”
Helper recognized that most Bobby Rush songs are autobiographical, and he found the right songs to amplify critical moments to move the story forward. “He said to me, ‘Bobby Rush, you have written the score to the story of your life.’ I call him a genius, because the emotions of the scenes – he’s a great writer, by the way – carry into the songs in just the right way.”
Rush adds, “You can’t create something like we have unless people are working together real close, with love and with trust. Steve and I have that, in both directions. Steve learned a lot about me; he has this ability to build strong relationships. I truly call him brother. Steve made a lot of trips to Jackson to visit me. He stays at my house. Steve kept wanting me to come to the rehearsals in Jackson, but I felt like since I didn’t know much about theater, what could I contribute? Plus, I didn’t know if this project was really gonna pan out. Then when I saw what he accomplished in Jackson, I knew we truly had something. Now I go to the New York City rehearsals every day! I love being there with Steve, I learn a lot and can contribute, especially working with the music and the cast.”
Slippin’ Through the Cracks begins with Walter Russell III as a young Bobby Rush. And as a coda to tie it all together, the real Mr. Rush joins the company on stage and performs a final song. “Eventually the baton is passed to Cedric Lamar who plays the main Bobby Rush. Then it is passed to Jackson’s own Mark Henderson playing Old Bobby Rush. Then, in the finale section of my song ‘Funky Old Man,’ I come out and sing and dance with the cast. Steve wants this to make sure everybody knows I’m still going strong after all I’ve been through. And one other thing, Walter just won a Grammy – I think the youngest one ever to win. And, on the other end, it’s me, the oldest Grammy winner still working. That is amazing and a blessing.”
An invitation-only industry presentation, co-directed by Stephen Lloyd Helper and Arminda Thomas, will take place in New York City on Tuesday, March 7th and Wednesday, March 8th. At the developmental reading, industry folk can look forward to “a great story told with great songs by a great cast of 14 actors and a terrific five-piece band. They can look forward to feeling the story, as well as watching it.”
And with these words, Rush lets me know what fans will walk away with having experienced the play: “If a dirt-poor country boy with no education and no opportunities can live through so much and make it, whatever it is, you can too. One thing I do know, audiences will feel uplifted, full of joy and hope, as they head out into the night from this show.”