“He was her man/But he done her wrong.” That’s about all for motivation in the lyrics of that old chestnut of popular song, “Frankie and Johnny.”
Mugwumpin, the young experimental troupe based in San Francisco (where they’ve been in residence at Exit Theatre downtown), proposes not just to flesh out the story of a murder of passion on stage, but to investigate it theatrically, literally turn over the material, in the Shotgun Lab presentation of their work-in-progress, Frankie Done it 29 Ways, playing at the Ashby Stage Mondays and Tuesdays through April 25.
Mugwumpin doesn’t so much open up the show as slide into it. Entering the theater, the spectators are confronted with the performers doing something like what the great Soviet stage director Meyerhold called “pre-acting,” riffing off the song and whatever hook that gets them moving.
“Frankie And Johnny” is founded on historical incident—or, the song made what was a more-or-less routine incident historic.
On Oct. 15, 1899, Frankie Baker, a young black prostitute, shot her procurer in their Targee Street crib. “And the gun went rooty-toot toot.”
She was tried and acquitted for acting in self-defense. But the song got minted, and pursued her with the legend of the jilted whore whacking her pimp that had so quickly sprung up around her.
The “true story,” or what we know about it, isn’t a rarity in America, certainly not as the record of a crime of passion—or as a popular arts rendering of it. Other examples spring to mind, notably, writer-director Samuel Fuller’s first onscreen outing (in 1949), I Shot Jesse James, which featured actor John Ireland as “that dirty little coward,” Robert Ford, Jesse’s pal who plugs him in the back, and then can’t collect the reward or escape the ballad about the deed that’s flung in his face everywhere he goes, until his own shooting death, and confession that he loved only Jesse.
Like the Bob Ford legend, like the many other stories of ordinary Americans suddenly flung into the public eye who lose their way, “Frankie and Johnny” and its afterlife, a melange of mythic overlay and factual backwash, is like a prehistoric trash dump for cultural archaeologists. And Mugwumpin mines that site, dancing around and through it in a kind of new ritual, at once skeptical and sympathetic, teasing out what can be performed of a collision between the banal and the epic, fame and anonymity.
First of all, of course, the songs. Besides the codified rendition, that of many stanzas and hypnotic (or irritating) syncopated chorus, there’s the old Charlie Patton version, “Frankie and Albert,” which Christopher White stands still for, Walkman in his ears, replicating for us in slurs and growls as best a young white urban or suburban guy can, this Delta Blues original we can’t hear. Elvis is even present.
The deadly, prosaic fate of the jilted, acquitted heroine is relentlessly picked over and dressed up (as it’s been in legend) with a kind of theatrical phenomenology that works and reworks tableaux and vignettes in different accents and opposite takes: the self-declared “real” Frankie acted out in succession by each Mugwumpin player, asserting his/her authenticity, while exchanging glances, attitudes, even voices—interrupted by, “You don’t own this!”
Elvis’ “cute little bootblack” becomes an ironic play on words, as the historical Frankie Baker plies her new trade in shoeshine, tired from work and apprehensive of recognition, hazed by men who show up one by one and bait her, asking “aren’t you ... ?”
Mugwumpin channels the juice of performance into the sloughs and sluices of the unsaid and half-said, the subliminal and the taken-for-granted. It’s absorbing, nothing but theatrical—and therefore hard to describe. A catalogue of possible influences and parallels wouldn’t do them justice. What they serve up in bits and pieces at the Ashby Stage just whets the appetite for the as-yet unrealized opus, strung along from “Frankie and Johnny.”
Shotgun Lab presents Frankie Done It 291 Ways, created by Mugwumpin at 8 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays through April 18 at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $10. For more information, call 841-6500 or see www.shotgunplayers.org.