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Release: March 22, 2002

(NOTE TO EDITORS: You can reach director Tisch Jones at the UI Department of Theatre Arts, 319-335-2700, or by e-mail at < >.)

'Wonderchild' tells story of UI student's 'discovery' of African-American pianist Blind Tom

University Theatres Mainstage will present the world premiere of "Wonderchild," by New York playwright J.e. Franklin, April 4-14 in Theatre B of the University of Iowa Theatre Building. The story of UI music student Geneva Handy Southall's "discovery" in the mid-1960s of Blind Tom, a post-Civil War African-American piano prodigy, "Wonderchild" will be performed at 8 p.m. April 4-6 and 10-13, and at 3 p.m. Sundays, April 7 and 14.

In one of her UI classes Southall encountered a book profiling "great pianists." She was annoyed that the volume ignored several prominent African-American pianists that she had learned about in her earlier studies. In fact, the only black pianist mentioned in the book was "Blind Tom," described as an idiot savant/musical mimic who was a flash on the American novelty-entertainment circuit after the Civil War before disappearing from sight.

She was intrigued enough to track down some of the music Blind Tom created, and what she discovered convinced her that the music could not be product of an idiot capable only of mimicry. Concerned that the dismissal of Blind Tom as an idiot savant "natural musician" was false, Southall launched into 30 years of research, resulting in three books on Blind Tom, as well as recordings in the 1980s of her own performances of many of his compositions -- winning recognition as the authoritative expert on this long-misrepresented American artist.

Tom Wiggins was born a slave in 1849, and the remarkable capabilities of this blind boy became evident at an early age. Although he was slow to talk, he could create uncanny vocal imitations of animal and machine sounds, and when he had access to a piano he could recreate, note for note, long and complex pieces after a single hearing. He could also turn his back to the piano, and play the same songs with his hands reversed.

After the Civil War, Tom's former owner, Gen. James Bethune, who had previously profited by "hiring out" his slave boy for exhibition, went to court and was awarded guardianship of Tom. For many years thereafter, Blind Tom toured as a highly publicized musical novelty to Bethune's financial benefit -- a virtual extension of the condition of slavery into which Tom had been born.

Mark Twain was among those fascinated by Blind Tom -- he attended performances whenever possible and wrote awestruck descriptions of Tom's amazing abilities and eccentric behavior.

But Blind Tom did not just mimic what he heard; he also composed more than 100 pieces of music, many of which have survived in sheet-music archives. Southall's research also documented the fact that Tom studied with many of the leading piano teachers of the time, and was active as a composer and performer into the 20th century, until his death in 1908.

After Tom had been under the control of Gen. Bethune for many years, the courts finally returned custody of Tom to his mother, ending decades of legal struggle.

Southall is now an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota, and her daughter, Tisch Jones, is now a theater faculty member at the University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts in directing and theater history.

With an intimate knowledge of her mother's research, Jones had long anticipated telling the story of Blind Tom in her own art form. This became possible with the interest of J.e. Franklin (Drama Desk Award for "Black Girl," the film version of which starred Ruby Dee, Leslie Uggums and Brock Peters), who has been a visiting artist in the UI Department of Theatre Arts. Rights to Southall's published research were secured, and Franklin began work on "Wonderchild."

After initial drafts of the script, however, more-recent history intervened. John Davis, a young Juilliard-trained white pianist with an interest in African-American music, made his own personal "discovery" of Blind Tom in the late 1990s. His fascination inevitably brought him into contact with Southall, the leading authority on the subject and the source of the definitive research on Blind Tom.

Through correspondence and telephone conversations, Southall helped him find other examples of Blind Tom's music, which led to the release of a CD of Davis' performances, devoted to the music of Blind Tom. The release of the recording generated national publicity, including stories on NPR and CNN, and features in newspapers and magazines, and led to another Blind Tom play, "Hush," staged in Atlanta.

Annoyed that the recent publicity would seem to suggest that Davis was the discoverer and leading expert on Blind Tom -- and sensitive to the irony that, in an echo of Blind Tom's life, again a white American was capitalizing on the accomplishments of a black American -- Franklin became increasingly interested in telling the story of Southall's much-earlier "discovery" and documentation of the truth about Blind Tom, beginning at the UI in 1964 and continuing through more than 30 years of scholarly research, the publication of three books and the release of recordings.

The "Wonderchild" that will premiere on April 4 in Iowa City is, therefore, a very different play than the one originally envisioned. It will be the story of Blind Tom portrayed through the dedicated detective work that came from an African-American student's inspiration three decades ago at the UI.

The world premiere of "Wonderchild" will feature scenic and lighting design by emeritus faculty member David Thayer, costume design by faculty member Loyce Arthur, and dramaturgy by Sharron A. Clayton of the UNI faculty and UI graduate student Nancy Hoffman.

Tickets for "Wonderchild" -- $16 ($8 for UI students, senior citizens and youth) -- are available in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be on sale one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.

Hancher Auditorium box office business hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. From the local calling area, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

Tickets may be ordered on-line 24 hours a day, seven days a week through Hancher's website:< >.

Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction. Information and brochures may be requested by e-mail: <>.

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit <>. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, contact <>.

The UI Department of Theatre Arts is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.