Arts / Performing Arts

Thunder Knocking on the Door Brings the Delta Blues to Beautiful Life In Houston — This Stages Show Packs a Musical (and Emotional) Punch

Myth, Realism and a Fable With a Message

BY // 07.15.23
photography Melissa Taylor

When Keith Glover’s Thunder Knocking on the Door opened in 1996 at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, before going to Yale Repertory Theater the following year, a Variety reviewer noted its descriptive subtitle: “A Bluesical Tale of Rhythm and the Blues.”

This tagline seems to have since been discarded — though perhaps it should have been switched for the title, as Thunder (running at Houston’s Stages through August 6) can be best enjoyed as a banquet of toe-tapping, Delta-style blues. With music from Grammy Award-winning composer Keb’ Mo,’ Thunder brings together five of Houston’s top actors and a spirited ensemble placed artfully on the stage, along with Ronnie “King” Mason Jr. as music director.

Troi Coleman, and Steve Scott in Stages_Thunder Knocking On The Door_Production Photos_Photographer Melissa Taylor-68 (Photo by Melissa Taylor)
Steven J. Scott and Troi Coleman in Stages’ production of Thunder Knocking On The Door  (Photo by Melissa Taylor)

The crux of the play, though, is the story line. Because there is one, even if it can be hard to discern. Glover’s plot cocktail is one part standard dramatic-comedy, mixed with two parts African-inspired magical fable and music.

Widow Gertha Dupree, known as “Good Sister Dupree,” has taken up with Dregster Dupree. He wants desperately to marry her, but she can’t seem to move on from her late husband — Dregster’s twin brother. Meanwhile, Good Sister’s grown daughter Glory is blind and lives at home, having suffered an accident after her fiancé left her at the altar. Her son Jaguar Jr. is just arriving to live at his mother’s, feigning success.

He brings the house down with his showstopper Big Money and some great moves that include hip swiveling and dancing on a chair. But in reality, Jaguar has failed at his dream to become a renowned blues guitarist like his late father.

In fact, the memory of the deceased patriarch becomes an overarching, controlling presence in the family, with the implied requirement to honor it above all else. Their shared recollections glisten in the moving gospel-style “Hold On (Don’t You Remember?),” sung by Dregster, Good Sister and Jaguar Jr.


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“Hold on, remember the ground on which you stand.”

Their shared memory also drives the plot into myth. With the introduction of the title character, unctuous trickster Marvell Thunder, realism ends. To get the second of two guitars he covets, handmade by the patriarch (who once humiliated him in a blues playing “cutting” contest), he arrives at the Dupree home in 1960s Bessemer, Alabama on the pretext of wanting to rent a room.

LaBraska Washington in Stages_Thunder Knocking On The Door_Production Photos_Photographer Melissa Taylor-431 (Photo by Melissa Taylor)
LaBraska Washington in Stages’ production of Thunder Knocking On The Door (Photo by Melissa Taylor)

Thus begins the second ingredient in Glover’s cocktail: a fable told in the vernacular of African American mysticism with elements first brought to the United States by enslaved people. As choreographer Eboni Bell Darcy writes in her program notes: Thunder is about “how a Black family interacts with a history of curses, magic, and African American folklore.”

When next we see the trickster Thunder — in a brilliant flash of lighting design by the talented Roma Flowers, and elaborate costuming by Jaymee Ngernwichit — he’s transformed into an imposing figure of African royal authority who casts a spell over the family to wrest the guitar he’s after. Ngernwichit noted in a Talk Back after the show that “empowering Black people to be royalty” inspired her outfitting.

That brings us to the third ingredient in Glover’s cocktail: music inspired by deep African roots. The musical cornucopia supplied by singer-guitarist-songwriter and Delta blues specialist Keb’ Mo’ (Kevin Roosevelt Moore) was written expressly for Thunder and incorporates ages-old West African rhythms and sound traditions to form a unique voice of his own that delights the audience.

Part of the plot is revealed through lyrics. So don’t get so carried away by the fusion of blues, soul, folk and jazz that you forget to listen to the words. It’s especially important in the two opening songs: “Prologue,” which lays out the story, and “This House is Built,” which describes the family’s foundation and their invitation to you for the evening.

This house is built on rhythm and the blues. We’re gonna party with you all night long. Come on in.”

Glover continues in the idiom of the fantastical until the play’s end when “truth” brings us back to realism. In classic fable style, there’s a happy ending and a moral lesson: Love is possible only with truth.

Steve Scott, LaBraska Washington, and Troi Coleman in Stages_Thunder Knocking On The Door_Production Photos_Photographer Melissa Taylor-20 (Photo by Melissa Taylor)
LaBraska Washington and Steven J. Scott in Stages’ production of Thunder Knocking On The Door (Photo by Melissa Taylor)

Thunder Knocking On The Door’s All-Star Cast

You couldn’t ask for a better or more experienced cast than the one assembled by director Tevyn Washington for Thunder Knocking On The Door. It’s an ensemble of five stars in five equally rich roles.

I loved Troi Coleman (Good Sister Dupree) and Steven J. Scott (Dregster DuPree) in A Motown Christmas at Ensemble Theater. They sang and danced like nobody’s business, and do the same great job here. Both bring tremendous energy to the stage, and Scott especially catches the eye with his height and a certain leonine grace. One wouldn’t necessarily put them together by appearance or temperament, but their acting skills and beautifully performed duet Believe Me convince one otherwise.

Sarah Sachi (Glory) was excellent in Roe earlier this year at Stages, but Thunder truly gives her the chance to shine and sing. When she appears in Act II with her sight restored, perhaps only temporarily, she reveals herself in a yellow party dress and silver sequin heels.

“I’m ready to roll,” she announces, and lets loose with one of the night’s best numbers, I’m Back. I mean, she sings. And if that’s not enough, she dances on the table too. You won’t forget it.

Kaleb Womack (Jaguar Dupree, Jr.) brings an infusion of youthful, yet carefully considered, exuberance to his role. The audience was rooting for him at the end when he finally finds his own sound. His song with Thunder, “Take on the Road,” is terrific: Take up the road wherever it leads, Be the man you were meant to be.

LaBraska Washington (Marvell Thunder) has the play’s hardest acting demands. He runs the gamut from a failed, lonely, itinerant figure with a chip on his shoulder, to the evil character of a trickster who lures Glory into a Faustian bargain over a guitar and deceives her into believing he loves her, to a man changed — some would say, redeemed — by love.

He does a fine job all the way through. Especially poignant is his “See Through Me” duet with Glory.

Thunder Knocking on the Door is a lot to take in. Go and enjoy the music — ponder the storyline later.

Thunder Knocking on the Door runs through Sunday, August 6 at Stages Theater at 800 Rosine Street. Find more information and get tickets here

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