On the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 10, following the 2:30 p.m. performance of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” several members of the American Blues Theater cast, as is customary, took off their costumes and make-up and participated in a post-show Town Hall-style meeting with members of the audience. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, and the conversation wide-ranging.
One of the first questions from the audience concerned the African-American blues musician and street singer Rufus Payne, who was widely known by his nickname, Tee Tot. Of course, the show dramatizes how Tee Tot, portrayed by Byron Glenn Willis, was instrumental in helping the young Hank find his sound, his voice, and his music. John Foley, who portrays the steel guitarist band member Shag, spoke of Tee Tot’s long-lasting influence on Hank Williams’ music.
Tee Tot, Foley said, “brought a black flavor to white audiences.”
According to Matthew Brumlow, who portrays Hank Williams in the show, Williams made it a point to help his friend from back home in Alabama as Williams’ star rose and he found fame and fortune. “Every time Hank made an extra nickel,” Brumlow said, “he’d find (Tee Tot).”
Brumlow recalled a story about the time Williams was playing in an auditorium and heard that Tee Tot was in the hall. Williams’ band members remembered, “That’s the most excited Hank has been,” Brumlow said.
Talking about the mentoring and the friendship between Payne and Williams, Brumlow pointed out the segregated times in which these people lived: the first half of the twentieth century.
“Think about that time in Alabama,” Brumlow said. “You didn’t cross the tracks much either way. … (It) says a lot about both of them that they made that connection. … Rufus saw something in the kid and … Hank … really wanted to sing and play the way this guy did, and really connected with his spirit.”
“Hank Williams: Lost Highway” is playing in Chicago at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., through Sept. 28.
story by Lawrence Hartmann; photographs by Violetta Muzychenko
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