From the Editor

Gospel and blues

A musical about the legendary Robert Johnson, written and performed by students.

Lane Unsworth ’19

Lane Unsworth ’19

The opening number of the show, "Jesus, Lord". View full image

Graphic design by Jordan Boudreau '19

Graphic design by Jordan Boudreau '19

View full image

It was a brand-new student musical, based loosely on the life of the great bluesman Robert Johnson (1911–1938): a musician so skilled that the legend was he’d sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar. I heard about the play from its producer, John Cooper ’21, who had interned at the Yale Alumni Magazine. When I arrived in Yale’s small Off Broadway Theater (and yes, it’s really off Broadway—the Broadway in New Haven), the five band members, all students, were already seated to the side of the stage.

You never know what to expect of a musical written and performed by amateurs. But as the seats were filling, the guitarist played one note, maybe testing the sound, maybe just musing. It was a long, lazy, bluesy note, rising upward with a rhythmic wave and then an expert quick fillip—down and up again—as a finish. An offhanded shrug of perfect musicality. After that, I knew we were in for something extraordinary.

Call Me from the Grave was the senior project of Charlie Romano ’19, who wrote the songs. At Yale he started out with a double major in music and engineering, which he saw as a way to support himself. But engineering didn’t last. He won awards in composition and was enthusiastically encouraged by his composition professors, and eventually, he decided to follow his calling.

Last summer, Charlie and Eric Krebs ’21, the show’s guitarist, did some research: they traveled the Mississippi Blues Trail. They drove Charlie’s mother’s old minivan from one tiny one-room museum to another, listening to stories and studying relics. They are still ardently grateful to the many Yale alumni in Mississippi who put them up for free. When they came back, Charlie and John held auditions for band and cast members.

The result was one of the best musicals I’ve ever heard—and I’ve been to that other Broadway. The work opened with the whole cast striding exultantly into church. John sang the first word: “Jesus!” The gospel singing that followed was afire, especially when Xavier Washington ’20, playing Johnson, shifted the congregation into a bluesier sound. He sang brilliantly throughout the show. Just a few of the other astonishing singers: Sara Speller ’19 as Johnson’s stalwart mother, Me’Lena Laudig ’19 as his doomed wife, and Elayna Garner ’20 as a woman he tried to protect. Julian Manresa ’22 was an unforgettable Devil.

While the story, music, and cast of Call Me are black, Charlie is white, and much of the story belongs to the women in it. I asked Charlie whether it was difficult to tread ground of race and gender that he hadn’t experienced himself. He had a lot of help, he says: the playwrights, Jordan Harris ’20 and Christopher Puglisi ’20MFA, are black, and so is the director, Anita Norman ’19. And the cast helped shape the story in rehearsals.

There were other reasons it worked. As Anita said in a short speech after the show I attended, Charlie’s work celebrated achievements of African American culture. Moreover, Charlie says, he connects with the music deeply—and “not just from a musical point of view, but also a spiritual point of view.” He’s a practicing Catholic who feels profoundly that spirituality, and the soul, are “infused within the black musical tradition.” Many of the cast members had grown up with that tradition; many are also Christian. There was a bond.

Robert Johnson, too. I asked Charlie about the musical’s title. He told me that Johnson, on his deathbed, had written a Biblical text on a piece of paper: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem, I know my Redeemer liveth, and that he will call me from the grave.”

The comment period has expired.