“I wear the Black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.”
—Johnny Cash, “Man in Black”
Simply christened J.R. Cash at birth, Cash was born dirt poor in 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas. He began working in cotton fields at age 5, joining his family in song to forget the laborious work, though he could often be found eating the cotton’s sweet, pollinated pink blossoms. In 1944, his older brother Jack, at age 15, was pretty much severed in two, having been caught in an industrial saw at a mill. He died days later. Early on, Cash’s life had been defined by poverty and tragedy. Later, there were drugs and numerous one-night stayovers in jail. But there was always the music, lots of it Gospel.
Cash was compelled to tell stories that chronicled his experiences, the trials and victories of those around him, their hopes and dreams, and his own. He began writing and performing songs at age 12 and sang on a local radio station while still in high school.
One month after an honorable discharge from the military, wherein upon enlistment it was necessary he change his first name from the simple initials J.R. and when he chose John, Cash married Vivian Liberto. The marriage endured for 12 years, when Vivian filed for divorce on myriad grounds, chief amongst them likely Cash’s great affection for songstress June Carter. Carter eventually begin performing with Cash and his band and, during a live performance in London, Ontario, he proposed. They were married on March 1, 1968.
Much of this incredible story is chronicled in “Ring of Fire, The Music of Johnny Cash,” the current production at the Virginia Stage Company. It features a spectacularly talented cast, every song they perform either touching something familiar within you or alternately having you tapping your feet, clapping your hands or laughing out loud. Ably directed by Amy Jones, the gifted cast includes Ben Hope as Cash and Katie Barton, Emily Mikesell, Gill Braswell and Sean Powell, in various roles. Also featured are musicians William Neil on keyboards and Tau Chapman on drums.
I would have loved to have seen the long, rebellious hair that Cash wore late in his career, but Hope cuts a fine image and his vocals were often eerily reminiscent of the tall Arkansan. Barton’s principal role was as June Carter and she too easily brought Cash’s second wife to life, sweet, patient and endearing.
Braswell, Powell and Mikesell constantly, fluidly maneuvered from one string instrument to another and are masterful musicians and vocalists. But Mikesell deserves special mention. She has a powerful, versatile voice and her performance is transcendent, taking you along on the journey with her. Simply incredible!
Cash’s daughter Roseanne recently recalled, when she and her siblings were children, what her father often told them about other races. “Children, you can choose love or hate. I choose love.”
If you’d like to spend a single evening getting more acquainted with the life of a lyrical storyteller, whose own spiritual fire was fed by his love for the common man, you need to see “Ring of Fire.”
“Ring of Fire” continues at the Wells Theatre in Norfolk through October 1, 2017. For information or tickets, visit www.vastage.org/
By Terrance Afer-Anderson