In the middle of Steel Hammer, an occasionally brilliant but also wayward show with music written by Julia Wolfe and performed by the Bang on a Can All Stars and SITI Company, Patrice Chevannes, playing the role of John Henry’s wife Polly Anne, sat still in center stage and told her story. She met a strong man named John in an overcrowded shack filled with migrant laborers during Reconstruction, and she knew — maybe before anyone else did — that John Henry was special. The joy and wonder of her solo tall tale lingered at the center of a busy performance that featured six actors, at least eight musicians, and the not always integrated writing of four playwrights.
I’ve seen Chevannes a few other times recently, in Tamburlaine and Pericles, both at Theater for a New Audience. Her infectious smile, powerful presence, and dazzling stage charisma tend to steal the show, as she did again last night. I was also intrigued by Steel Hammer’s layered engagement with the folk tale and musical history of John Henry, who — according to research one of the characters presented early in the show — appears to have been either very short or very tall, from Alabama or Kentucky or Georgia or Elizabeth, NJ, or perhaps someplace else. Possibly a criminal, or maybe not. But we are sure that he’s the most famous American folk hero who’s African-American — and possibly the only folk hero who dies on the job.
At a certain point, when the actors were exhausting themselves running circles around the center stage for what seemed a very long time, I wondered if the performance might be trying to represent the experience of painful and tedious work — which is a tricky thing to perform. (My daughter, alas, just thought it was dull.)
I love the John Henry song, and its ambivalent celebration of the human heart struggling against the machine. I also enjoyed the music in this show, especially the inventive clarinet playing and percussion by the Bang on a Can All Stars, featuring Ken Thomson on clarinet. This show feels like a work in progress, though I guess it was at BAM last fall. It’s hard to stage painful work!