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‘Catalyst Sessions’ recap: Bob Devin Jones

Bill DeYoung

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Man of many talents Bob Devin Jones was Tuesday’s guest on The Catalyst Sessions, discussing all things biographical (he arrived here from his native California more than 20 years ago), theatrical (he has had a long career as a working actor, director and playwright) and personal (his unshakeable belief in the depths of St. Pete’s talent pool continues to motivate him to produce, promote and advocate on behalf of others).

Jones also talked about Uncle Bends: A Home Cooked Negro Narrative, the one-man show he’ll perform live Thursday, in a virtual setting.

His earliest inspiration for the history-based show, he explained, were the slave narratives – oral histories of the last surviving former slaves – taken by the Works Progress Administration, part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,”  in the 1940s.

Then there was the famous Life magazine photograph depicting Chief Petty Officer (USN) Graham W. Jackson, tears streaming down his face as FDR’s funeral train pulled out of Warm Springs, Georgia, where the president – a friend of Jackson’s – had died in April, 1945.

That photo, Jones said, really gets to him.

Feeding into the narrative are Uncle Ben (of converted rice fame), pancake spokes-character Aunt Jemima, and the unnamed “breakfast chef” on the box of Cream of Wheat cereal.  “Who are these people? What would their narratives be like? Not just the stereotype stock footage of them, but give them real passion, real hope, real dreams … the pain was already there. It’s in everybody’s DNA.

“So I just took a flight of fancy.”

Ultimately, Uncle Bends has a life lesson: “You can survive a couple of hundred years of slavery, but it takes some grace, some wit, a lot of love, a lot of bending but not breaking.”

Jones wrote Uncle Bends in 1995 and premiered it with the Sacramento Theatre Company; he has performed in St. Petersburg, but not for a while. “Coming back to the play after eight or nine years, I’m surprised that I wrote it,” he said with a knowing smile.

Jones talked about the “creative ecology” of St. Pete, and described that as a major reason the and co-founder David Ellis opened thestudio@620 in 2004.

“We live in a very fecund area. St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay region, but particularly St. Petersburg, it’s got a very magic dirt that we’re all standing on,” he said. “That’s why the First Nations people built their mounds here – the dirt is special.

“And the bench is quite deep here in St. Petersburg, in regards to people having creative things that they want to do – or think they want to do, or might want to do.”

The policy at thestudio@620 is to present a wide variety – an unlimited variety – of creative pursuits, for the public to experience.

You might not be crazy about everything they put on in the studio space, he said, but “our philosophy and our mission at the studio is the answer is always yes, because that’s an affirmation that ‘we can do this. We’re going to jar the floor and make something happen.’”

Uncle Bends will stream live at 7 p.m. Thursday (April 30) on thestudio@620 website and Facebook page.

Wednesday (April 29) on The Catalyst Sessions: Opera singers Sarah Nordin and Tyler Putnam. Live at 7 p.m. on the St. Pete Catalyst Facebook page.

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