Playwright Michael Aguirre takes on the narrating chores for his The Jackson C. Frank Listening Party w/Special Guests in the guise of Allen, a good-natured millennial with a long history of throwing listening parties with his brother Rob (Sean Phillips).
Presented by New Light Theater Project in association with the 59E59 Theaters, Listening Party resurrects the music of Frank who led a heartbreakingly Job-like life that spiraled into poverty and homelessness, this despite having been discovered and produced by Paul Simon and admired by folk music cognoscenti.
Allen and his brother led a semi-obsessive life of jumping into their parents’ Cadillac, zeroing in on the local Best Buy and investing in a series of CDs. Deeply involving sessions in which they shared their catholic tastes in music—disco, folk/rock, blues, hip-hop, etc.—and their philosophies of life, followed.
Allen eagerly shares the eponymous album beginning with “Blues Run the Game” and “Don’t Look Back,” the former a gentle, world-weary view of life and the second an anthem urging listeners to learn from past upheavals such as the assassination of Medgar Evers and the treatment of protesters in 1960’s Selma, Alabama. Allen deems it similar to Peter Seeger’s protest songs.
He speaks eloquently of all the musical albums accumulated with Rob and their painstaking search for those overlooked, but brilliant songs that made each album satisfying. His relationship with his brother deepened through these shared activities. The casual unfolding story of these two brothers, intertwined with that of Frank’s, quietly becomes more and more fascinating as Listening Party morphs into a psychological mystery.
Allen truly loved this sharing of music but Bob weirdly internalized the songs, his life pathologically defined by the tracks of music leading to his abandoning the U.S. for Spain to find his “original self,” a life choice that affected Allen deeply, not to mention Rob and the brothers’ family.
Listening Party bifurcates into Rob’s story and an account of Jackson C. Frank’s life.
In the course of telling Frank’s life story Allen calls upon Paul Simon (William Phelps) who knew Frank in London in the sixties and Grandma Woodstock (Dana Martin), a silly remnant of the same decade who adds her disquieting tidbits about Frank.
The brothers’ Mom (Bethany Geraghty) also appears in a ditsy phone call that leads to the conclusion of Rob’s story.
Does Rob reappear? Well, sort of.
The songs of Jackson C. Frank are reminiscent of many of the folk/rock composer/performers of the sixties such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Don McLean, Jeff Buckley et al whose colorful works alternated between deeply personal stories (Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”) and eager political commentary (Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”).
Frank had an unusual ability to turn surreal imagery into deeply emotional statements as in “My Name is Carnival” and “Milk and Honey,” both of which have surprising twists. Even the idyllic “Kimbie,” a love song, winds up turning unexpectedly unpleasant. “Dialogue (I Want to Be Alone)” is the one song that artistically connects the parallel lives of the late, real Frank and the fictional Rob, at least in Allen’s mind, reminding him of Rob’s self-inflicted isolation and disappearance in Europe.
Viewers should note that as Allen (Aguirre) puts on his earphones to listen to Jackson C. Frank’s songs, they will be directed to another screen containing the playlist of the CD. They will be asked to click on the appropriate song title to listen along with Allen. A tad awkward at first, it becomes easier and even heightens the effect of joining this listening party. The lyrics of the songs are displayed.
Aguirre manages to have written a play that doesn’t feel like a play thanks to his interpretation of the main character. He doesn’t overdo the emotions, letting the songs carry that weight for him.
Sarah Norris’ direction—aided by Hallie Griffin’s skillful film and sound editing—is unobtrusive except for allowing the two women characters to veer towards stereotype, particularly when Aguirre’s Allen is so natural.
The entire cast, despite appearing in little windows, made The Jackson C. Frank Listening Party w/Special Guests an organic whole, gamely playing Aguirre’s character with zest, if sometimes a bit too much zest.
The Jackson C. Frank Listening Party w/Special Guests (streaming through April 11, 2021)
Jackson C. Frank’s self-titled album is available to stream via Spotify and YouTube or for digital purchase from AmazonMusic.
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission