Kenny Leon’s theater company is ‘Chasin’ dem Blues’


“Chasin’ dem Blues: The Untold Story of Paramount Records”

Through Aug. 9. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (also 11 a.m. July 15 and July 23). Tickets, $15-$60. Performances are at Fulton County's Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road. For tickets: 1-877-725-8849, or

The "Blues Is the Roots" symposium will take place at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, July 11, at the theater at the Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road, Atlanta. The panel discussion will last about 90 minutes, including a question-and-answer session. Free, with the purchase of a ticket to the 2:30 p.m. July 11 performance of "Chasin' dem Blues."

The story of the blues has plenty of strange twists and turns — particularly that part where English lads in the 1960s began teaching American teenagers about Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson.

But one of the oddest wrinkles in the tale is the role a Scandinavian furniture company from a little town in Wisconsin played in becoming one of the country’s leading outlets for Mississippi Delta music.

That narrative is told in the new musical “Chasin’ dem Blues: The Untold Story of Paramount Records,” a production of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company. The show opened this week at Fulton County’s Southwest Arts Center.

The connection is curious. The Wisconsin Chair Co., in Grafton, Wis., built wooden cabinets for Edison phonographs and in 1915 began making its own music machines. To bolster sales, it also began producing 78 rpm records under the Paramount label. In the 1920s, with the guidance of freelance promoter J. Mayo Williams, it entered the “race music” market, recording such artists as Alberta Hunter, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Skip James and Son House, and Paramount became the most profitable arm of the corporation. (No, it’s not the same Paramount as the well-known movie company.)

Writer and director Kevin Ramsey describes the idea for the play as one that found him, rather than vice versa, while he was in Milwaukee, working on a musical retelling of the life of Sam Cooke. “It got its hooks in me for some reason,” said Ramsey, who is also a performer and choreographer.

“It’s an American story on so many levels,” he said. “How communities collide — sometimes unintentionally.”

With a set design and projected visuals inspired by the collages of Romare Bearden, “Chasin’” creates a 1920s vibe. Ramsey said his intent is to use the story of Paramount as a lens to look at the influence of blues on American music, an influence that continues from the 1920s to the present day.

The special events of opening weekend include a panel discussion of leading blues scholars called “The Blues Is the Roots,” which will take place Saturday morning at the theater of the Southwest Arts Center.

Among the special guests in town for Friday’s opening night festivities is Bill Luckett, mayor of Clarksdale, Miss., who can talk firsthand about the ongoing impact of the blues. Despite reports to the contrary, “the blues is very much alive,” Luckett said.

With a population of only 18,000, Clarksdale has enjoyed a brisk tourist industry, drawing Europeans, South Americans and even Australians to town to see the region that brought us John Lee Hooker, Son House, Junior Parker and Ike Turner, Luckett said. Restaurants and live music venues have sprung up to satisfy the demand from these visitors, including the Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by Luckett and actor Morgan Freeman.

“Every city’s got a story,” Luckett said. “We capitalized on our blues history — that’s the best part of our story.”