The show was created for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 1996; it won the American Theatre Critics Association 1997 Osborn Prize for the year’s best play by an up-and-coming playwright. It had a few regional productions prior to its Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park mounting, but here was where Glover perfected his show, working with a Broadway-caliber production team.
By 1999 he already had an impressive track record, having earned the Playhouse’s Rosenthal New Play Prize for In Walks Ed, a Shelterhouse show in 1997. I vividly remember that production, full of poetry and atmosphere. It was the winner of the 1997 Cincinnati Entertainment Award as the year’s best local production, and the script was subsequently a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Glover was a fascinating subject for my first truly in-depth piece about a theater artist — full of creativity and larger than life in so many ways, truly a force of nature. After all, the man who creates in multiple media — theater, television, film, live entertainment and music — has a production company he calls “Oobopshibam.” That word seemed to me to encompass all that he’s about.
When it came time for Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern to map out his 20th and final season at the Cincinnati Playhouse, it only made sense for him to turn back to Glover. After all, Thunder proved to be the best-selling musical in the past 20 years at the Mount Adams theater.
Announcing the show, Stern called it an “intoxicating musical fable filled with humor, heart and extraordinary music.” He added, “I’m delighted to welcome Keith Glover back to the Playhouse. He’s a visionary, a craftsman with a fabulous soul.”
Set in rural Alabama in 1966, Glover’s musical fairy tale is steeped in folklore and the mystique of the Deep South.
Marvell Thunder, a Blues-playing stranger and supernatural shape-shifter, visits the Dupree family. Years before he had lost a guitar-playing “cutting contest” to the late Jaguar Dupree. Now Thunder wants to challenge the children of the only musician who ever “out-licked him” and reclaim the charmed guitars their father bequeathed to their care. Winning them will set his life right again, he believes, and prevent him from turning to stone. He contests with the son and then the beautiful but blind Glory Dupree. With Delta Blues guitars, they come together “where the two roads meet” for a musical face-off that decides everyone’s fate.
In an interview with the Playhouse about the origins of Thunder Knocking on the Door, Glover said, “I wanted to try writing a musical, and it was a momentous time because I was soon to be a father. So because that’s a time when you start reflecting on your own childhood, the strongest memories bouncing around were music and guitars. Vivid memories of summer nights in Alabama being up past my bedtime hearing Howling Wolf and B.B. on the radio and my Uncle Bill in the living room telling big lies with his fellow Masons from Bessemer Steel.”
He explained, “Thunder Knocking on the Door is about the love of music, love of family, love of tradition, love between a man and woman, father and son, mother and daughter. We have love in real life, why can’t we see that onstage. We don’t have to see African-Americans hating each other all the time. We don’t always need to see ‘real life’ up there. Also, for some African Americans, this is their real life. There are black people who are leading great lives. I have a great deal to be thankful for. African-American life, like the Blues, is not only about sadness. There is room in the kaleidoscope for all of our experiences.”
Thunder Knocking on the Door is full of soulful, engaging Blues tunes, many crafted by Glover’s friend, the acclaimed singer and guitarist Keb’ Mo’.
Glover says, “The Blues is organic to the piece. It’s also organic to the African-American culture and its people, as well as the region where the play takes place.” (The story is set in the vicinity of a town called Bessemer, which happens to be Glover’s birthplace.)
“Telling this story and using the Blues were not separate ideas. African language is very musical. So is the dialogue of this play. I wrote the lines to be spoken in the rhythm of the Blues.”
Coming back to the show after 13 years has not been a matter of Glover and his creative team simply dusting off an old production. He says that he and his team, which includes Tony Award-winning scenic designer David Gallo and Tony-nominated lighting designer Thomas C. Hase, are aware that theater is an evolving art form.
“We didn’t play it safe before, and we refuse to do it now,” Glover says. “We aren’t in the same place we were. We’re down the road a bit, plus all of the advancements in stagecraft, leaps and bounds beyond where we were before. You got to use it, baby!”
Glover is an endless pipeline of enthusiastic creativity. He’s currently working on a play about a young Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong teaming up to solve a murder in 1935. He’s begun working on a show called Tales of Adventure, a collection of adult pulp fiction stories about pirates, femmes fatales, sea monsters and such; he has his eye on a retired Ed Stern as his possible director.
If you need one final piece of evidence of Keith Glover’s showmanship, how about this: He’s the writer of the script for the 134th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. “The Greatest Show on Earth” seems like a natural assignment for this guy.
Thunder Knocking on the Door opens on Thursday at the Cincinnati Playhouse and continues through May 20.