‘Hell in High Water’: Bluesman taps Mississippi roots in New Stage play about Great Flood of 1927

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Vasti Jackson’s role in “Hell in High Water,” a play with music at New Stage Theatre, may be as fluid, mercurial and deep as the Mississippi River that’s at the play’s narrative core.

The international blues artist and Mississippi native is not only a character (Old Lucas) in the play by Marcus Gardley, set in Greenville during the Great Flood of 1927 and based on a true story. Jackson is also the production’s musical director, composer and arranger. And, his character personifies the mighty Mississippi itself.

“Hell in High Water” starts at New Stage Theatre in Jackson Tuesday. The two-week run closes Feb. 10 — a time frame that includes related events to deepen understanding and encourage dialogue about the disaster’s impact on the community, state and nation.

The play works many aspects of Jackson’s long and varied career, which has had a foot on the theater stage as well as those at festivals, concerts and clubs, since his teens. A world-renowned and much-awarded guitarist and vocalist (Grammy nominee, Arts Ambassador, Albert King Lifetime Guitar Award and lots more), he plays Ike Turner in the international musical tour “Simply the Best: The Tina Turner Story,” performs as Robert Johnson in “Robert Johnson: The Man, The Myth, The Music” and as Hobo Bill in the stage play “Jimmie Rodgers: America’s Blue Yodeler.”

Kyle Tillman and New Stage Theatre

Blues artist Vasti Jackson plays Old Lucas in “Hell in High Water,” and also serves as the production’s musical director, composer and arranger.

As Old Lucas in “Hell in High Water,” the elder griot bluesman known for dodging work and bossing the young guys around, Jackson enjoys the beard and crotchety demeanor that come with the role. The music director/composer/arranger aspect “draws from my entire life’s experience,” he says, as well as a family musical lineage he traces back to his great-great grandfather’s fiddle playing and subsequent generations.

“I’ve heard this stuff all my life,” he says of the blues, along with his previous theater and film work, “It gives me the opportunity to tap into my Mississippi roots,” and working with director Francine Thomas Reynolds to develop and revise ideas, “It really stretches me.”

When the project first came up in 2017, and Reynolds (also New Stage artistic director) pursued grant support, she wanted to start from scratch on the play’s music, and wondered about Jackson’s possible interest — “‘the Mississippi blues artist’ is how I think of Vasti, and this play is all about Mississippi,” she says.

“Hell in High Water” is not a musical, but the rhythms so endemic to the people, culture and region — “second nature to breathing,” Jackson says — become a key thread, weaving throughout the play’s scenes. Jackson is developing music and songs unique to this production, covering the gamut of Mississippi music and anchored in the trinity of blues, country and gospel. “We touch base on all of that.

“Some of the things we’ve come up with work really well to accent what this particular play is communicating — about survival, about struggle, about triumph, about conflict, about coming together, working together and all of the things that made Mississippi what it is today. Some good. Some bad.”

Kyle Tillman and New Stage Theatre

The ensemble cast of “Hell in High Water” includes (standing, from left) Kimberly Morgan Myles, Cliff Miller, Hayden Schubert, Jordan Williams, Cherry Rendel, Will Lindsey, Jasmine Rivera and Joseph Frost and (seated, from left) Xerron X. Minho, Sarah Coleman and the Rev. Charlton Johnson.

In “Hell in High Water,” fathers and sons come in conflict in this story of courage, cowardice, power and poverty as the populace confronts the devastation wreaked not only by floodwaters but also responses that ripped into the fragile fabric of race relations in the state in the early 20th century. The most destructive river flood in America’s history left a lasting national impact — from displaced people joining the Great Migration to federal control of the river’s levee system.

The truth of the play is what resonates most, Jackson says. “This is not a fictional piece. This is based on actual Mississippi history.” Their research, through news clippings and videos of those who were actually in the flood, deepened insights to the perspectives of landowners and sharecroppers, politics of the day and more. “For me being born and raised in Mississippi, it actually enriches my reference of history,” he says — what was, what is and “the optimism of what will be.”

New Stage Theatre presented a public reading of “Hell in High Water” last season in the Mississippi Play initiative of the Eudora Welty New Play Series, and the play found a good main stage fit with this season’s theme of “The Power of Place.” The ensemble cast includes such New Stage veterans as John Maxwell, Kimberly Morgan Myles, Sharon Miles, Joseph Frost and more. Choreography is by Tiffany Jefferson.

Kyle Tillman and New Stage Theatre

Cliff Miller (left) and John Maxwell portray Will Percy and Leroy Percy in “Hell in High Water” at New Stage Theatre.

Related events during the play’s run are presented through partnerships with the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University, the William Winter institute on Racial Reconciliation and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH).

Ancillary events include: New Stage Theatre Dialogue, 6:15 p.m. Thursday (prior to the performance) about the flood’s impact on the community then and now with scholars and Jackson (conversation continues after the play with cast members); Youth Night at the Theatre, Feb. 5 with $10 ticket and a post-performance conversation with the cast; and, a photo exhibition from MDAH’s 1927 Flood Collection, on display in the Hewes Room during the show’s run.

Performances of “Hell in High Water” are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 10. For tickets, $30 with discounts for students, seniors and groups, visit www.newstagetheatre.com or the box office, or call 601-948-3531.