“First Avenue’s really famous. A lot of bands make it after playing there.”
When Purple Rain hit theaters in 1984, Apollonia’s line wasn’t really true, but 30 years later there is a legacy of bands that made it after playing “the house that Prince built.”
Complicated Fun — The Minneapolis Music Scene, an original musical currently running at St. Paul’s History Theater, explores the era First Avenue’s reputation was built on, when Prince was playing secret shows, and the punk scene was creating a name for itself in the adjoining 7th St. Entry.
The play features a live band on stage playing 26 different songs, with local music roots that include Lipps Inc., Sue Ann Carwell, André Cymone. It also features real local heroes as characters, including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in a scene that is a summary of the conflicts African American musicians had with getting booked at local downtown clubs.
The struggle with race and “Minnesota nice” is also acknowledged in an exchange where the female main character — a woman of color — tells a Black record store clerk played by powerhouse H. Adam Harris, she’s from St. Paul and he counsels, “You know that’s not what people are asking when they look at the color of your face and ask where you’re from?”
I asked playwright Alan Berks if he had anticipated addressing this social tension in the play and if he created his female lead as a person of color for that purpose. ”Because of my understanding the [Minneapolis music] scene in this way, I wanted to make the main female character a person of color from the beginning. I thought it important to personify and dramatize those issues….
“In fact, since the African American musicians that came from this scene have been significantly more ‘successful’ (by certain measures) than the White artists, the question maybe should be why I would have either of the two main characters be White?”
Berks went on to say, “Music, more than almost any other area of our culture, has always been a place where racial and cultural mixing occurs organically (even as the culture at large tries to stop it)…. So, yes, a lot of the way in which the play explores those issues was baked into the play from the initial conception.
“It just so happens that in addition to making an unbelievable amount of great music, Minnesota has also made an unbelievable amount of influential music in both punk and funk—changing the nature of rock n’ roll nationally from that point forward. Prince is undeniable — but the Replacements, Husker Du, and Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam also have an outsized influence on American music culture, don’t they,” Berks asked.
The play is full of scenes of passionate musical discovery, and we follow the two leads quickly through several years of character development. I was able to ask director Dominic Taylor about how his own creativity was affected by seeing Prince live in his hometown of New Jersey.
“One of the things that I cannot overstate was the otherworldliness that Prince exhibited in 1982. By the time Purple Rain emerges, he had gotten rid of the Farah Fawcett hairstyle and he was no longer prancing around [on] stage in a G-String and a coat.… This was the song that he opened the concert with: ‘Where I come from/We don’t let society/tell us how it’s supposed to be./Our clothes, our hair/ We don’t care./ It’s all about being there./Everybody’s going Uptown….’ He was making me aware of options in our world and our life.
“Dirty Mind, as an album, is probably not the album for all, but it, along with Controversy, were the albums that shaped how I viewed Prince. The question of did it help me develop my creative voice: OH YES.”
Taylor continued, “I must also say, that looking back, there were so many people including, James Baldwin, Grace Jones, Sylvester, George Clinton and Prince who were pushing me into finding unique ways to be. Prince being the youngest of them asked me to shift some of the notions of what was appropriate.
“I did not come to writing until I was in college a few years later, and then one of the things I always tried to do was to write with the same kind of propulsion that I felt at that first Prince concert. He was the first thing that I knew that came out of Minnesota, and I moved to Minnesota first in 1991 as a Jerome Fellow with the Playwrights’ Center.”
Complicated Fun is a play that will leave you with a sense of fun, but the playwright also hopes audiences leave with an appreciation that “Minnesota has somehow produced some of America’s most essential music, and making something that matters to people, like music, regardless of money or fame, actually does change the world one person at a time.”
Taylor says he hopes audiences leave the play with “…an appreciation of the complexity of the scene itself, and the notion that this greatness comes from “doing the best we can” (a lyric from “Sometime to Return” by Soul Asylum which is used in the play)… I think that we can all make great art, great communities, great experiences, if we keep “doing the best we can.”
Complicated Fun is now playing at the History Theater in St. Paul, with shows Thursday-Sunday until May 29. More information can be found at www.historytheatre.com/2015-2016/complicated-fun.
Laura Poehlman welcomes reader comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.