AKIN BABATUNDE: I had no idea who Blind Lemon was or that he influenced the Beatles and Carl Perkins. I grew up in the Motown era and I wasn't interested in the blues; I thought it sounded like old time slavery music. It's unfortunate because it's part of my culture. When you go to blues concerts, it's mostly young white people who keep the music alive. It's been a real honor and quest for me to research this legendary figure who does not get his due.
TM: So, how did you become enlightened about Blind Lemon?
AB: I was introduced to Alan Govenar who wrote about 15 books on Texas blues, and he had the idea to do a show about Blind Lemon. When we met each other there was an immediate symbiotic relationship and we started writing the text. When I first heard Blind Lemon's scratchy recordings, I thought "what in the hell is he saying?" It was like when I first heard Billie Holliday and I couldn't understand what everyone was talking about. But I had to go deeper to the essence of what is being said and felt; that's the beauty of the blues. It's not all sad. He wrote about 80 songs and seemingly about every human condition. When Alan and I met August Wilson he said he listened to Bind Lemon all the time he was writing Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
TM: How would you characterize his life?
AB: I would say that he lived a courageous life. Not a lot is known about him but what we do know gives no impression that he was down on his luck because he was blind. He played on the corner of Elm and Main in Dallas as if it was his job. He recognized that he had a gift. Then, he was discovered and catapulted to stardom. He didn't die penniless. In fact, he was the first black man to collect royalties on his recordings for Paramount.
TM: What was it like to come back to The York, where you first did this show two years ago?
AB: I cannot honestly tell you how wonderful it is to work at the York. They wouldn't have brought it back if they didn't believe in it. If something is unclear, we go into sessions to work on it. But it isn't like scrutiny; you feel like you are in an artistic haven. I felt that way at La Mama when Ellen Stewart put her hand on my first play -- she didn't even read it -- and said it would open the season at La Mama in 1978. I grew up in New York in theater at a time I wouldn't trade for anything in the world -- when Samuel Jackson, Denzel Washington, and Debbie Allen were all working on their chops and pounding the pavement, and there seemed to be a theater on every corner.