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J Dontray Davis as Blind Lemon Jefferson Photograph by Alan Govenar

The musical “Lonesome Blues” pays tribute to one of Deep Ellum’s most famous and influential songsters, Blind Lemon Jefferson. Produced by Documentary Arts in association with Central Track Productions, the show continues with select weekend matinees through Sunday, April 7, at Club Dada in Deep Ellum (2720 Elm St., Dallas). Written by author/filmmaker Alan Govenar and acclaimed actor/director Akin Babatundé, the one-man musical is sponsored in part by the Deep Ellum Foundation, Madison Partners, Asana Partners, and Deep Ellum Community Association, and is presented in association with the African American Museum, Dallas, which is currently presenting two exhibitions that commemorate Deep Ellum’s 150th anniversary. Tickets are available at lonesomebluesmusical.com.

“Lonesome Blues” celebrates the life and accomplishments of legendary bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson – born blind but ultimately able to express his deepest emotions through music. Born in rural East Texas and discovered on a street corner in Deep Ellum in 1925, Jefferson made more than 80 records over the next four years, becoming the biggest country blues singer of his generation. Despite his tragic death at age 36, the prolific and powerful performer propelled the growth of rhythm and blues, soul, doo-wop, rap and hip-hop.

“This show culminates more than two decades of collaboration with Akin Babatundé.," said Governar. While few biographical details are known about Blind Lemon, Akin and I have worked to create a powerful metaphor for his life and music and his profound influence on the growth of American popular music.”

 For Babatundé, "The discovery and celebration of Blind Lemon Jefferson, an unsung hero in American music, has consistently provided an artistically rewarding journey of reflection and transformation.”

The musical has garnered rave reviews since its premiere as “Blind Lemon Blues” at the off-Broadway York Theatre in 2007. Govenar and Babatundé since used new research to probe deeper into the life and psyche of the artist, creating “Lonesome Blues,” which returned to the York Theatre for its 2018 premiere under the direction of the late Katherine Owens. The show was staged at Undermain Theatre in Dallas in 2022 and Circle Theatre in Fort Worth in 2023, both directed by Babatundé.

After seeing an early workshop, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson noted that “Blind Lemon Jefferson was the voice of Black America at that moment.”

In “Lonesome Blues,” Dallas-based actor J Dontray Davis plays more than 10 different roles, channeling the spirits of men and women alike in a journey that is at once evocative, troubling and transformative. The show’s songs and monologues bring to life the voice of Blind Lemon, his community and his musical contemporaries, including Blind Willie Johnson, Lillian Glinn, Hattie Hudson, Bobbie Cadillac and Lead Belly. They all come together in Jefferson's mind on the day of his death, December 19, 1929, when he wandered into the Chicago snow and froze to death.

For Davis, playing Blind Lemon has been a life-changing event.

“Being able to tell this heartfelt story about a man who lived his life unapologetically, a man who pushed through all obstacles and proved that determination and hard work pays off is very liberating. Being that Blind Lemon and I are from the same area of East Texas and have a lot of similarities, I honestly feel like he is speaking to me, using me as a vessel to tell his story and encourage a new generation,” said Davis.

Marking Deep Ellum’s 150th anniversary milestone, the African American Museum, Dallas is currently presenting two free exhibitions through May 24, 2024, that relate to the life and times of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Central Track: Crossroads of Deep Ellum focuses primarily on the 1920s and 1930s and features newspaper clippings, archival photographs, posters, and recordings of blues, jazz and popular music of the period. The exhibition unravels the growth and demise of North Central Avenue, in the area known as Central Track or Stringtown, which connects Deep Ellum to what was called Freedman Town after the Civil War. Seeing a World Blind Lemon Never Saw presents a photographic series by Alan Govenar from 2021-2023. The exhibition explores rural East Texas, little-known places in Dallas and locations that the legendary blues singer, Blind Lemon Jefferson, visited or alluded to in his songs.

The 80-minute family-friendly performances of “Lonesome Blues” are offered Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. on the following dates: March 17, 23-24 and 30, and April 7.

Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for youth (6-18) and seniors (65+). For tickets and more information, visit lonesomebluesmusical.com

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ABOUT DOCUMENTARY ARTS

Founded in 1985 by Alan Govenar to present new perspectives on historical issues and diverse cultures, Documentary Arts, Inc. is a non-profit organization based in Dallas, Texas and New York City. Learn more at documentaryarts.org

ABOUT ALAN GOVENAR
Alan Govenar is an award-winning writer, poet, playwright, photographer and filmmaker. He is director of Documentary Arts, a non-profit organization he founded to advance essential perspectives on historical issues and diverse cultures. Govenar is a Guggenheim Fellow and the author of more than thirty books, including Boccaccio in the BerkshiresParadise in the Smallest ThingLightnin’ HopkinsUntold GloryTexas BluesStompin’ at the SavoyEveryday Music, and A Pillow on the Ocean of Time. His book Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper’s Daughter won first place in the New York Book Festival (Children’s Non-Fiction), a Boston Globe-Hornbook Honor; and an Orbis Pictus Honor from the National Council of Teachers of English. Govenar’s film, Stoney Knows How, based on his book by the same title about old school tattoo artist Leonard St. Clair, was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and was selected as an Outstanding Film of the Year by the London Film Festival. His documentaries The Beat HotelMaster Qi and the Monkey KingYou Don’t Need Feet to DanceExtraordinary Ordinary PeopleMyth of a Colorblind France, Looking for Home, and Down in Dallas Town are distributed by First Run Features. Govenar’s theatrical works include the musicals Blind Lemon: Prince of Country BluesBlind Lemon Blues, and Lonesome Blues (with Akin Babatundé), Texas in Paris, and Stompin’ at the Savoy.

ABOUT AKIN BABATUNDÉ
Akin Babatundé is an accomplished actor, director, writer whose theatrical career spans from regional and off-Broadway theater to the international stages of the world, including film and T.V. He has been a resident company member of several prestigious theatrical institutions throughout the country, including the Trinity Repertory Company-Providence, R.I.; Alley Theater, Houston; La Mama Theater, New York City; and Dallas Theater Center. He was the founder and artistic director of Vivid Theater Ensemble of Dallas and presently founder of Ebony Emeralds Classic Theater Company Babatundé  is a native of Brooklyn, New York. Although Babatundé has a national presence, he chose Dallas as his artistic base and continues to mentor aspiring artists throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth region. He served as theater specialist consultant for Dallas Independent School District and acting coach for celebrated recording artists such as Regina Belle, David Peaston, Allyson Williams and the late great Phyllis Hyman.

He was the first African American to direct for the Dallas Shakespeare Festival in the celebrated diverse production of “Taming of the Shrew” in 1993. As a writer, Babatundé’s work has been commissioned by Florida Stage and Teen Pregnancy of Broward County, Florida Humanities Council; La Mama Theater; Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, Arts Council; Cuney, Texas-Brown University-Black Academy of Arts and Letters; Documentary Arts; and Core Ensemble, an internationally celebrated chamber ensemble.

His  work “Shakespeare-Midnight Echoes” tours throughout the DFW region paying homage to Black performing artists who mastered the bard (Shakespeare) from slavery to the present. In the South Florida area, he has performed at Florida Stage, Caldwell Theater and Duncan Theater, and toured extensively with Core Ensemble in his one-man show “Of Ebony Embers – Vignettes of the Harlem Renaissance.” His one-man show he wrote along with his brother – celebrated Emmy-award winning actor Obba Babatundé – entitled “Before the Second Set -- A Visit with Satchmo” had its world premiere at The Black Academy of Arts and Letters (TBAAL) and received critical acclaim at theaters across the country.

His direction of “Blind Lemon – Prince of Country Blues” at Addison Center Water Tower Theater, starring national recording artist the late David Peaston, garnered him a best director nomination, and along with co-writer Dr. Alan Govenar, the 2001 Leon Rabin Award for best new play. Their new version “Blind Lemon Blues” toured successfully throughout Europe in Paris, Switzerland, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Mount Jolie. “Blind Lemon Blues” received rave notices in its New York premiere at Central Park’s Summer Stage and off-Broadway at the York Theater for which he won the 2010 Audelco award for “Best Director of a Musical” and was nominated for a 2015 Audelco for his direction of “Texas in Paris” at the York starring Tony Award-winner Lillias White. Babatundé had the honor of directing the 2006, 2007 and 2010 “God’s Leading Ladies Graduation event” for First Lady Sarita Jakes at the Potters House in Dallas.

His work has been awarded a D Magazine citation, Providence Journal, Dallas Observer Best of the Best- best actor award (the first African American to receive this distinction), the KRLD community service award, 2004 Legacy of Success Alvin Ailey Performing Arts Award and the 2008 Jubilee Theater Mendie Award for his production of “Blue”. He has been the recipient of the Irma P. Hall for Theater Excellence and the prestigious Individual Artists Grant Award from the Palm Beach Cultural Council to create a new works “Harvest of Voices” based on the quaint and diverse Florida towns in Lake Worth, Belle Glades, Fort Lauderdale and Delray Beach. He is the recipient of Dallas Critics Forum Award  in 1991(outstanding actor), 2004, 2015 (outstanding direction) and more recently 2016 (for his outstanding direction of “Mountaintop” at the Dallas Theater Center and “Bootycandy” at Stagewest Theater).

Babatundé holds a Masters of Arts degree in Humanities from The University of Texas at Dallas and was honored with the 2012 distinguished alumni award. Babatundé serves as adjunct professor at Mountain View College, Eastfield Community College, lecturer at UT Dallas and in the spring of 2016 the inaugural recipient of the Theodore U. Holger distinguished artist in residence for the school of visual and performing arts at Lehigh University. He is the coordinator/stage director for seven seasons of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters Sunday staged readings, and in the early Spring will direct starring Liz Mikels “The Life and Music of Fannie Lou Hamer,” a collaboration of TeCo Theater and the Dallas Theater Center.

ABOUT J DONTRAY DAVIS
J Dontray Davis is a native of Waco, Texas (by way of Mexia, Texas) where he spent many years doing plays and musicals in grade school and local community theater. He relocated to Dallas in 2012, where he quickly began doing shows. J has been seen all over DFW. Some of his acting credits include Mister in The Color Purple, Tom Collins in Rent, Shrek in Shrek the Musical and Tiny Joe Dixon in Dreamgirls at the Tony Award winning Dallas Theater Center. He was last seen as Reverend Hopkins in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at Casa Manana in Fort Worth.