What happens when two musical minds combine their powers?
“Voltron!” said Eugene H. Russell IV, with a delighted shout. His answer, name-checking the 1980s Japanese television show that featured robots assembling themselves into even larger super-robots, reveals much about how he works with Divinity Roxx.
Roxx, a superstar bassist and songwriter, who tours in Beyonce’s all-female band, and Russell, an actor, musician and songwriter, came together to create the music for the Alliance Theatre musical, “The Boy Who Kissed the Sky,” which opens April 1.
Inspired by the life of Jimi Hendrix, and set in the world of 1950s Seattle, the musical, geared for young audiences, is a mix of fable and history, demonstrating how through music and dreams a young person can make a way out of no way.
Russell had earlier Alliance credits, composing the songs for the 2021 show “Beautiful Blackbird LIVE,” and both Russell and Roxx worked together even earlier, creating a show’s worth of songs for a Push Push Theatre production — in a single night! (They also both performed in the 1990s at the legendary Yin Yang Cafe.)
Credit: SCOTT Mitchell
Credit: SCOTT Mitchell
Their combined talents, said Roxx, are enough to help Voltron defend the universe. “Together,” she said, “we make one incredible, amazing, almost-perfect musician.”
That super-musician then collaborated with playwright Idris Goodwin, who had been working on a musical about a young Jimi Hendrix since 2017, when he was still director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
He brought the idea with him when he became artistic director of the Seattle Children’s Theatre last year.
Working through Zoom, the Seattle writer and the Atlanta musicians crafted a story in which music is the hero and just about every character in the play also serves as a musician.
“We made the decision early on to liberate ourselves from it being a traditional fact-based biographical play,” said Goodwin. “Instead it would become more mythic, more of a tribute, more fictionalized.”
The protagonist, a boy who yearns to play guitar, is never identified as Hendrix, but he is, like Hendrix, the son of a struggling father and an absent mother who dies young.
His sanctuary is his artwork and his music. His helpmate is a fantastical extraterrestrial creature named J. Sonic, who is conjured by his drawings, and who may or may not be a product of his imagination.
J. Sonic takes the boy on a time-traveling excursion, where the boy sees his own grandparents performing in vaudeville and his parents jitterbugging to 1940s swing. He meets Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor and learns about the blues.
There is no Hendrix music in the show. Goodwin wanted to evoke the legacy that his character inherits, the legacy of vaudeville, jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll, interpreted in a hip-hop idiom. “It’s about ancestry and legacy. When you quote unquote, don’t have anything, what you do have is your history, your ancestry. That is your wealth.”
The show teaches music history, in an allusive way, and tells Black children something they may not know, said Russell: “It lets Black kids know that they were part of the origins of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Said Roxx, “This show gives children permission to dream, to dig deep and delve deep in their imagination.”
Students at Atlanta Public Schools and their families will have the opportunity to see “The Boy Who Kissed the Sky” for free during the system’s spring break, and Roxx said such a visit can nourish young creatives.
As a child she went on field trips to the Alliance and the Atlanta Symphony, and it was a mind-opening experience: the awe-inspiring building, the dramatic scenery, the surround-sound of the music. “I can imagine the impact this play will have on all these young people who don’t even see it coming,” she said. “Once they’re sitting in that dark theater and those lights come up and the music drops, they will be transformed in ways unimaginable.”
“The Boy Who Kissed the Sky”
April 1-15. $42; $24 children; details about the opportunity for Atlanta Public School students and their families to see the show for free are at the Alliance Theatre website. The Coca-Cola Stage at the Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4600, alliancetheatre.org.
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