_Bland Simpson is a Kenan Distinguished Professor in the creative writing program and was director of the creative writing program from 2002-2008. Simpson, along with lyricist Jim Wann and singer-songwriter Don Dixon, will be performing “King Mackerel and the Blues are Running: Songs and Stories of the Carolina Coast,” in Historic PlayMakers Theatre on February 27 and 28. “King Mackerel” is a variety concert, combining storytelling and musical performance. It was co-created and written by Simpson and Wann during the 1980s.
Staff writer Robert McNeely spoke with Simpson about the themes of the performance and the process of staging it._
Daily Tar Heel: What all will the show include?
Bland Simpson: Well, this is a musical concert — a lot of variety. It doesn’t have a setting like it had in the 90s when we did it at the Kennedy Center, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a three man show about the Carolina coast. There are about 20 songs, some stories, it’s a two act musical. We’re doing the bulk of songs from the show as well as some others mixed in from various places.
DTH: There seems to be a lot of different elements involved in performing this show. What would you say your role is?
BS: I’m a performer, not just co-author. I play piano, sing songs, and tell tales. Jim and I wrote this in 1984 through 1985, and staged it with Don Dixon. We developed the show on through the 80s and 90s, and it initially ran in Chapel Hill in a cabaret called Rhythm Alley. We’ve just been developing it ever since. We did it in NYC in the fall of ’94 and then the Kennedy Center in 1996. We’ve been doing it since the year 2000 quite a bit as a fundraiser, and we try and get together a time or two a year to do it in concert. It seemed like a natural fit to do it at Chapel Hill with UNC’s water theme.
DTH: Given your background in creative writing and music, do you gravitate more towards the show’s stories or its songs?
BS: That would be like trying to divide up air in a jug. On stage, in a performance, when you’re there, your favorite thing is whatever you’re doing at that moment. Sometimes that’s even listening to someone else do it. We’ve done this several hundred times, so it has a kind of totality to it. We’re all old friends, and have been since our college days. We’re singing about a part of the world we all care about and the underlying environmental consciousness makes it all a real joyful thing for all of us.
DTH: How did you and Jim Wann first create this show?
BS: Well, it was a very interesting thing. A lawyer from Sanford, who was good friends with the fellas in this band called The Embers, got in touch with me and Jim and asked if we’d like to write a musical for The Embers. We said we’d explore it, which we did, but ultimately they weren’t able to commit to the rigors a musical requires. By the time we realized that, we had already written a half dozen songs and a million stories. We were also, by then, enamored with the idea of doing a coastal musical about NC, so we just kept on with it. We knew we could stage it here in Chapel Hill, and we got a five show run in the second week of December 1985. We weren’t sure how it would all play. I mean, we’re on stage as ourselves, but we’re portraying ourselves as old fishing buddies. However, it sold out and played well.
DTH: Is it exciting for you guys to put it on at UNC?
BS: We’re really glad to be playing a part in the University’s water theme. We’re happy to be making joyful noise for it. It’s important for the whole university, the community and its resources to be focused on water in our world. How to be responsible and live green lifestyles. The water theme is of paramount importance and is a great focus for our institution.
DTH: This show has received a lot of accolades in its different incarnations. Why should people come see it here?
BS: It’s had a long and happy life. It’s been produced in Atlanta, New Jersey, Calgary, even Canada. It’s very lighthearted, energetic, and a lot of fun. Just a fun evening. The whole green-element and environmental concerns are softly sold. It’s not a prop piece of theatre at all. It’s an upbeat show trying to bring some attention to real environmental concerns.
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