“Grafton City Blues” Interview with playwright Kevin Ramsey
PUBLISHED IN THE MILWAUKEE REP 2007/08 SEASON PROLOGUE PUBLICATION
Last season Stackner Cabaret audiences were treated to a spirited world premiere production of SAM COOKE – FOREVER MR. SOUL, written and directed by Kevin Ramsey. When he was here last year, Kevin learned about the history of Paramount Records that was located in Grafton, Wisconsin. One person who has assisted him in his research was Angela K. Mack, co-founder of Paramounts
Home, paramountshome.org, and Music Director/Instructor with the North Shore Academy of the Arts. Here, Angela interviews Kevin about his exuberant world
premiere musical, GRAFTON CITY BLUES.
Angela K. Mack: Where did you grow up and how did you get introduced to the world of theater?
Kevin Ramsey: I was born and raised in New Orleans. I grew up a stutterer as a youngster. My sister got me involved in a summer theater program as a form of speech therapy at the Free Southern Theater, which was one of the oldest African-American theater companies in the southern region. I guess you can say I found my passion at age 12.
AKM: How is Grafton like New Orleans?
KR: A river runs through both of them. Their musical traditions and contributions are very different. New Orleans is the birthplace and Grafton is one of the cradles.
AKM: What were your greatest sources of inspiration for this musical?
KR: I was fascinated by the idea of the blues being created and recorded in this very small rural all-white town. I was introduced to a brief history of Grafton by Cecilia Gilbert [a former Rep board member and the City of Milwaukee’s Permits and Communications Manager for the Department of Public Works], who I met last season when I was at The Rep doing the Sam Cooke project. It was a most educational encounter. Ms. Gilbert spoke enthusiastically about Paramount Records and other intriguing Wisconsin history, including Bronzeville. I have set the play in an attic in Milwaukee’s historic Bronzeville district. Actually, my set designer, Jill Lyons, suggested the attic. Originally it was set in a basement. I loved the attic idea especially because the piece deals with conjuring up the past and the spirit world. The attic made it feel not so earth-bound. The show is a stylized retelling of stories and tales woven into a musical blues rap discourse celebrating Paramount Records and the blues.
AKM: What is the main message of this musical? Why is it important for this message to be told?
KR: I would say the question explored in the musical is: what do we do with our legacy and how do we use it? Each audience member will be effected differently, I suppose. As humans we are usually in search of a connection with where we have come from and how we fit in.
AKM: Are there any subtle twists or contradictions you use to convey the message?
KR: Certainly. It’s the blues; and the blues is full of contradictions.
AKM: Describe your first trip to Grafton, Wisconsin, in one word.
AKM: Why is GRAFTON CITY BLUES a great fit for you as a playwright?
KR: It fuels my love for history and music.
AKM: What aspects of this musical are you the most pleased with?
KR: Thus far, I am extremely excited about the cast assembled: Jannie Jones, Jeremy Cohen, Eric Noden and Juson Williams. They will knock your socks off. In terms of the musical, once we are in rehearsals and in front of an audience I will let you know.
AKM: Is the story more historical or historical fiction?
KR: I think a mixture of both. Recalling history can be very challenging. Whose history are you recalling and from whose perspective? My process was to find as much historical information as possible and then throw it all away.
AKM: What do you want your audience to go away with?
KR: An awareness of the legacies in one’s own ‘attic’, as well as a deeper appreciation for the early pioneers of blues music.
AKM: How has this musical inspired you personally?
KR: I am inspired to listen more deeply to the world around me.
AKM: Both of the musicals that you have written so far for The Rep, SAM COOKE and GRAFTON CITY BLUES, are about African-American musicians. Do you think that this is a niche that you would like to continue pursuing?
KR: Actually, I’ve written four musicals. I grew up surrounded by music, interesting characters and events. Music and stories are in my blood. I am committed to the historical examination and retelling of the African-American musical experience and its artistic contribution to American and world cultures. So, yes, I will.