On the set of Good Blues Tonight! writer and director Robby Henson portrays the black community in Danville during the 1950s. Second Street, a square block in downtown Danville, housed barbershops, pool halls, social clubs and churches during segregation.
The play is centered in that business district, which began to dwindle during integration. In 1971, during an urban renewal project, the land around Second Street was bulldozed.
The story follows the people of Second Street as an elder in the community dies, leaving his landmark building Dorian Hall, a desired component on the block. An out-of-town visitor named Chrysler persuades the townspeople to host a fundraising blues show featuring legendary Big Mama Thornton, whom he claims to know. Everyoneprepares for the event, even though they’re are uncertain whether Chrysler is telling the truth. Live music is featured throughout the play as the townspeople try to save Dorian Hall from collectors.
Henson has won awards for his films Pharoah’s Army and The Badge and is the author of another Kentucky Voices original, The Wonder Team, which portrayed the Centre College football team’s unlikely victory over Harvard in 1921. He was moved to write a play about black life life during the time of Second Street after attending the Soul of Second Street Festival, which celebrates the historic block.
Henson says he combined the story of the block with “my appreciation of the ’40s and ’50s jump blues that was played in black entertainment establishments called the ‘chitlin’ circuit.’”
The town isn’t mentioned by any of the characters throughout the play because, “I want the story to be universal to any place,” Henson says.
Clark Janell Davis, Miss Kentucky 2015, whose term just ended July 2, stars in Good Blues Tonight! portraying Bug.
This is her first time working with Henson at the Playhouse, but she is familiar with theater. She attended the School for the Creative and Performing Arts and is a student at the University of Kentucky, majoring in vocal performance.
She had the opportunity to perform at Pioneer Playhouse after coming down for a show. A few months later, they offered her a role.
“I love the atmosphere, and I knew what the quality of the show was going to be like beforehand,” Davis says.
Her time at SCAPA prepared her for the role of Bug “because I don’t have a melody to hide behind,” she says. “It is very raw and very me.”
Henson knew of Davis’ experience but had never seen her perform.
“She was hitting the emotional notes and crying a flood of tears on day one,” he says. “She is not only an amazing person, but an amazing actress.”
This is the ninth Kentucky Voices play that Pioneer Playhouse has produced, starting with Catherine Bush’s A Jarful of Fireflies in 2007, which was set during the filming of the 1957 Civil War drama Raintree County, starring Elizabeth Taylor, in Danville. Kentucky Voices was started by then-artistic director Holly Henson, who died in 2012. The purpose is to celebrate Kentucky then and now. The Playhouse is the only theater in Kentucky producing an original play each year by Kentucky-based authors.
Henson consulted with Michael Hughes, the president of the Danville Boyle County African-American Historical Society. Hughes helped Henson create the image of Second Street.
“It was almost a different world,” Hughes says. “It was a history that was not being shared.”
The “chitlin’ circuit” was important because it gave black entertainers a place to perform.
“Music was a way to connect,” Davis says. “Music in the black community has always been important, and I know it was a way to keep your spirits up.”
The play focuses not just on the musical influence of the time, but economic influences that hurt black residents.
“One of the biggest takeaways from the show is understanding that everything we do has a consequence,” Davis says. “I want people to see the show, love and appreciate it, and then realize it was someone’s choice to tear down that history.”
If you go
‘Good Blues Tonight’
What: Original play by Robby Henson, part of the Playhouse’s Kentucky Voices series.
When: 8:30 p.m. showtime, 7:30 p.m. BBQ dinner through July 23.
Where: Pioneer Playhouse, 840 Stanford Road, Danville
Tickets: $32 for dinner and show; $18 for show only. Ages 12 and younger: $17 for dinner and show; $10 for show only
Note: Shows are rain or shine. An indoor theater will be used in inclement weather.