CONTACT: WINSTON BARCLAY
300 Plaza Centre One
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0073; fax (319) 384-0024
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 < firstname.lastname@example.org
'Wonderchild' tells story of UI student's 'discovery' of African-American
pianist Blind Tom
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:< http://www.uiowa.edu/hancher
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: <email@example.com>.
For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit <www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa>.
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The UI Department of Theatre Arts is part of the Division of Performing
Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.