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A mod and a rocker

Clarence Williams III and Donovan Leitch have very personal reasons for signing on to do 'I Just Stopped By to See the Man.'

August 31, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Donovan Leitch stands frozen in a rehearsal room at the Geffen Playhouse, practicing his portrayal of someone who has just seen a ghost come back to life. The apparition, draped in a green bathrobe, is Clarence Williams III -- a mountain of sternness with a stone-faced glare.

Leitch's left hand hovers near the garish, orange-and-black fish-patterned scarf around his neck, as if he's considering whether loosening it might free his constricted voice. This flouncy, Mick Jagger-like talisman is the perfect accouterment for the role he's playing: a British mega-star barnstorming through the South on a stadium rock tour during 1975. In this moment of shock and recognition, Leitch's character, Karl, sets eyes for the first time on his hero, Jesse "The Man" Davidson, the 75-year-old Delta blues legend played by Williams.

Karl has intuited that Davidson did not die with his wife in a 1961 Chicago car wreck, as the coroner assumed, but disappeared while they buried somebody else. The rocker, lost and desperate despite his wealth and fame, needs to reconnect with his creative fountainhead. And here it is.

The question, for the rest of Stephen Jeffreys' play "I Just Stopped By to See the Man," having its West Coast premiere Sept. 17 at the Geffen, is whether Karl can convince Jesse that he is a legitimate inheritor of the blues -- and whether the old man, whose guitar has hung on the wall untouched for 14 years while he embraced religion, can be tempted back to the stage.

The show marks a real-life return of sorts for Williams -- it's his first stage role in more than 20 years. And it's a first shot on a major regional stage for Leitch, who has gained notice since the late 1980s as a fashion model, a thus-far hitless glam-rock singer, an occasional film actor and a man of impressive bloodlines (Donovan, the '60s folk-rock star, is his father, and actress Ione Skye is his younger sister).

Randall Arney, the Geffen's artistic director, staged the U.S. premiere of "The Man" last fall for his alma mater, Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, and decided to bring it to L.A. with a different cast. The play originated in London in 2000. Jeffreys, an Englishman, weaves a story of three people motivated by pride, guilt and fear; along the way he delves into blues myth (did the genre's founding eminences really conjure with the devil?) and questions of creative and cultural authenticity (can white musicians, or those who haven't suffered, truly play the blues?).

As a baby boomer, Arney grew up watching "The Mod Squad," the hit TV series from 1968 to 1973 in which Williams, Peggy Lipton and Michael Cole were a hip trio of undercover cops, kids of the counterculture working for another version of The Man. But Williams' path to playing Lincoln Hayes on "The Mod Squad" was paved on the boards -- including a Tony-nominated turn in the 1964 Broadway drama "Slow Dance on the Killing Ground."

Conflicts with his screen work, or lack of interest in the parts offered, had prompted Williams to turn down plays. But when Arney sent him Jeffreys' script, he bit. Jazz is his musical love -- as a kid in New York City, he hung out at clubs where his father, organist Clay Williams, had gigs. But he was captured by the characters in "The Man," including Jesse's daughter, a professor and radical black activist who has her own reasons for hiding out in his Mississippi shack.

Now Williams sleeps with several hundred dollars' worth of recently purchased blues CDs by his bed, immersion in Blind Lemon Jefferson, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and the rest of the pantheon being a requisite for playing their fictional peer.

"The blues gives this play its weight, but to me it's a metaphor, a canvas," he says. "The music is the starting point. Then you start getting into the people's lives."

Music was Leitch's "in." Arney didn't know of his work, but as he asked about possible Karls, Leitch's name kept popping up -- partly on the strength of his brief hitch in 1999-2000 playing the lead as a transsexual glam-rocker in the off-Broadway hit "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." It's a plus, Arney says, that Leitch grew up around the rock royalty that playwright Jeffreys tries to personify in Karl.

"I saw from a very early age what that whole life was like, how these guys can be adored by so many people, and at the same time they're human as well," Leitch says, swiveling in an office chair upstairs from the theater while Williams plants himself on a nearby couch. "These guys surround themselves with people who are pretty much yes men, and Karl has anything right at his fingertips. But coming to meet his idol just turns the whole thing upside down."

Leitch, 36, has a couple of stories about how nerve-racking it can be to meet The Man. One was an encounter with his idol, David Bowie, at an awards show.

"He came out of the dressing room and said, 'So you're the one who wants to sound like me,' or something like that. I almost wish I hadn't had that with him. I wanted to keep the fantasy."

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