The ghost of Woody Guthrie stalks the stage.
You enter the theatre for the one-man show starring Rob Tepper ’00 about folk-singer Woody Guthrie and you snap on a plastic ID bracelet from the Brooklyn State Psychiatric Hospital, where Guthrie spent many years battling Huntington’s disease. You’re committed now for the duration of When the Curfew Blows, a patient in the psych ward’s recreation room, listening to Tepper tell Guthrie’s story—singing the Oklahoma cowboy’s tunes in a plaintive twang, reciting Guthrie’s florid poetry, and showing the depth of Guthrie’s heart when he confronts the death of his 4-year-old daughter, Cathy, after an apartment fire.
As the show reaches its climax, the degenerative disease takes hold. Tepper fumbles with the guitar pick. His hand shakes uncontrollably, he drops the capo, he can’t play the right notes and he haltingly sings “John Henry” off-key.
“Guthrie’s mind is still there, but his body is deteriorating,” says Tepper, 32, who with his upswept curly hair, high forehead and aquiline nose, bears a haunting resemblance to the father of American folk music. “And that’s hard on a musician, who no longer has the faculty to play.”
The play, which Tepper co-wrote with filmmaker Corey Brandenstein, was originally conceived as a full-length drama with musical interludes. But without the financial backing to mount such a production, they pared it down to a one-man show, which Brandenstein directs.
BEEN GOOD TO KNOW YUH
“Woody’s fight, his stubbornness, and the genius of his music strikes me deeply,” says Tepper. “His story needs to be told. His songs need to be sung.”
Tepper spins tales about Guthrie singing with Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Cisco Houston. He sings Guthrie compositions about union organizing, the Columbia River during the WPA dam project in the 1930s, and drifting as a hobo. He celebrates America’s grandeur in the 1940 anthem, “This Land is Your Land.” And he gets giddy singing silly children’s songs that he sang to Cathy.
Backstage after his show in San Francisco’s Studio 250, Tepper explains that his performance of the life of the Dust Bowl Troubadour turns on the scene with Cathy: when Guthrie knows she will die, and you see his body wracked with grief. “That’s all about what it means to love, and how quickly it can go away,” he says.
The collaboration between Tepper and Brandenstein began in 2008, when they shot a music video of Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” in the desert at Soggy Dry Lake in Johnson Valley, Calif. The video, which recreates the feeling of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, earned the blessing and encouragement of Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and director of the Woody Guthrie Archives.
|Sweeter than wine: Work O’ The Weavers, Fred Hellerman, Rob Tepper, and Pete Seeger performing in Tarrytown, N.Y. Photo from Rob Tepper.
Tepper has since deepened his relationship with the Guthrie clan. Dressed in a red-and-black checked flannel shirt and blue jeans rolled up at the ankles, he played at a benefit last spring in Tarrytown, N.Y. for the Woody Guthrie Archives.
“‘I just saw my father on stage, and he’s younger than me,’” Tepper recalls Nora saying. “‘The hairs on my arms stood up.’”
For the evening’s finale, he joined Pete Seeger, the Klezmatics, and the Guthrie family onstage.
THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND
In spring 2011, Tepper and Brandenstein shot a short Guthrie film they plan to submit to festivals in 2012. It focuses on Guthrie’s relationship with folk singer Houston and is set in a café near the end of their lives. There Guthrie reminisces on their time performing on troop carriers in the Merchant Marines during WWII.
For Tepper, Guthrie’s story strikes at the core of what it means to live one’s life to the fullest. The iconic American folksinger celebrated the triumphs and struggles of the working man in the mid-20th century while battling Huntington’s disease, a degenerative neurological disorder that affects mood, cognition, and muscle coordination. Tepper volunteers with the Huntington’s Disease Association and says he learned the twitching movements that characterize the disease from spending time with people who live with Huntington’s.
Tepper didn’t come to college planning to pursue a career in acting. His first love was soccer. But he was sidelined with an injury and discovered the theatre in Elizabeth Dale’s introductory acting class. By his sophomore year, he’d left soccer behind so he had time to audition and rehearse for campus plays. In 2010, Tepper had major roles in the sci-fi short film Infected and Heaven Strewn, a finalist for best picture at the Ashland Independent Film Festival in Oregon.
This July marks the 100th anniversary of Guthrie’s birth, with Tepper’s Guthrie performances—both on stage and film—his contribution to the centennial. Upcoming stage appearances include two nights in the Library Theatre in Birmingham, Ala., in April.
David Mckay Wilson is a New York-based freelance writer. He profiled Pat Mangan ’84 in the Winter 2009 SCM.