A couple of verses of the well-known folk song “John Henry” ring out while a lone man stands in front of a creative but spare stage set; the song ends, the actor looks at his audience in surprise, demanding to know where the scores of students came from, and then shoos them away as he announces that if they came looking for the famous John Henry, “he ain’t here.”
Fourth- through sixth-graders as well as their teachers are totally captivated, and remain entranced as the truth about the famed steel-drivin’ man is magically revealed in Mad River Theater Works production of John Henry that Darke County Center for the Arts presented in local schools this past week as part of their Arts In Education series.
The amazingly talented cast of two portrays several characters as the story unfolds, utilizing minimal props and sheer acting skill to successfully produce suspension of disbelief among all assembled; the audience was transported from a contemporary school cafetorium to a pre-Civil War slave plantation, the busy streets of nineteenth century New York City, and the mountains of West Virginia during the fascinating and fast-moving show. When one of the actors explained during the question and answer session following the show that “a play is transportation out of the theater to where the story takes you,” no one doubted that definition; the performance had already proved his point.
Bob Lucas and Ernest Jordan originated the roles they are now playing when John Henry was first produced in 1993; their characterizations brilliantly bring characters of all ages and diverse demographics to life, illuminating historical facts and contemporary issues with wit and ingenuity. The play draws a distinction between the legend of John Henry and the reality of the life of a man whose hard work made him famous.
Many lessons can be drawn from the production; the value of being free to shape one’s own destiny is a recurring theme. The struggle to remain relevant as progress renders obsolete previously valued skills is made movingly made clear. One of the youthful questioners sagely asked if John Henry would have liked robots, provoking a thoughtful response that further illuminated the complexity of issues affecting real people yet today.
The story of John Henry is not a fairy tale; the hero is, in his own words, “nothin’ but a man.” Although his legend has grown to create a larger than life character, the play tells of a man who worked hard and battled against losing his way of life. As the script discloses, “a man’s got something no machine ever had—a man’s got a heart.” Of course, John Henry famously worked so hard in the contest with a machine that he “broke his poor heart, laid down his hammer and he died.”
But as the song also proclaims “You can still hear his hammer ring!” And the complex truths presented in this deceivingly simple production also resonate in the minds and hearts of local students as they continue to contemplate all that John Henry has to say to their lives.