A Haunting Ballad

Article excerpt

Director Tina Landau talks about bridging past to present with the new musical The Ballad of Little Jo

The stage is layered in shadow, skeletal trees silhouetted against a scrim lit up like an evening sky, when a slender figure in cowboy clothes begins to sing. In the dim light this person's broad-brimmed hat and heavy boots look masculine, but the voice that emerges is pure female.

"I am crossing a river so deep and wide / Lord, lead me on to the far side," Judy Kuhn's unaccompanied contralto keens.

The gospel-inflected couplet perfectly sums up the universal themes running through the new musical The Ballad of Little Jo. Premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre under the direction of ensemble member Tina Landau, it uses the compelling story of a cross-dressing woman in the Old West to dramatize issues of diversity and tolerance.

"I remember putting [the script] down and thinking, Well, this is all there is to say," Landau says. "It speaks so eloquently of why we must look beyond the color of the skin--or gender or whatever it is--to the core of people. I remember thinking, There's nothing else I want to talk about in the theater. This is it, this is it, this is it."

Landau's enthusiasm is understandable. The Ballad of Little Jo, written by Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger with liberal doses of inspiration from Maggie Greenwald's 1993 film of the same name, is in some ways similar to a production Landau directed at Steppenwolf in 1997, the widely praised Space. That play, which Landau also wrote, concerned lovers who met through their involvement in several cases of supposed alien abduction. With it, Landau expressed her dedication to finding common human emotions in unorthodox situations. …

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