It’s one of the most quoted lyrics in the history of blues music, the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters classic that’s been covered by a host of rock performers, most notably the Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton:
I got a black cat bone
I got a mojo too
I got the John the Conqueror
I’m gonna mess with you
I’m gonna make you girls
Lead me by the hand
Then the world will know
I’m that Hoochie-Coochie Man
Rob Cleveland forgives those who don’t know of the folk-legend character High John the Conqueror outside of the reference in Muddy Waters’ signature song. After all, Cleveland himself hadn’t heard of John’s exploits until just over a decade ago.
According to lore, High John the Conqueror was a prince in Africa who was sold as a slave in America. He never allowed his spirit to break on the plantation, however, and always seemed to outmaneuver his owners, making him immensely popular in slave culture. “He’s a trickster character, invented by the field slaves,” says Cleveland, a well-known Atlanta actor. “Stories about him were told among the slaves. The thread of stories was making the master seem like an idiot. John the Conqueror was always two steps ahead. He’s sort of like Bugs Bunny: you can fight him but you can’t outthink him.”
Fascinated by the character, Cleveland is mounting a world-premiere production based on the legend. His family-friendly “The Adventures of High John the Conqueror,” which opens tonight at Theatrical Outfit, includes more than half a dozen stories about the character.
The actor performed a solo, 45-minute version of the show at Theatre in the Square a few years back, but he has bulked it up considerably for this new version. Besides writing and directing, he shares the stage this time with Eric Little, an actor he has worked with before, most notably in the acclaimed “Blue Door,” also at Marietta’s late and much missed Theatre in the Square.
Cleveland compares the character to Chris Rock or Redd Foxx and explains that he’s witty and possesses almost superhuman strength. For the slaves, High John gave inspiration at a time when inspiration was much needed, often late at night after long days. As the stories grew in popularity, the storytellers would embellish them and try to one-up what had been said before.
Little thinks the stories became almost spiritual for the slaves, a coping method to get them through their lives.
John the Conqueror shares characteristics with Br’er Rabbit as well as Anansi the Spider, noted in African and Caribbean folklore. Both characters are noted in the new production, which starts in Africa, weaves its way through slavery’s Middle Passage and finishes in America with Cleveland and Little playing both human and animal characters.
Oddly, the character of High John the Conqueror has been largely absent from pop culture, save for some brief references. Zora Neale Hurston wrote of him in her folklore collection “The Sanctified Church.” Although the character has been mentioned in the lyrics of several blues songs, Cleveland recalls no significant mention of him in movies or television shows.
Acting, writing and directing the same show is something new for Cleveland, and he has relished the opportunity, particularly being able to tell the story of High John and work again with Little. While “The Adventures of High John the Conqueror” is billed as a children’s show, he feels that it’s an equal-opportunity theatregoing experience. ‘There is a lot to keep adults engaged,” Cleveland says.
He doesn’t expect any controversy over the subject matter, mostly because the character is still rather obscure. Little, who had never heard of High John until Cleveland approached him about acting in the piece, feels that the production’s treatment of slavery isn’t one that will ruffle any feathers. “It won’t make people cringe,” he says. “We treat the issue with a lot of respect.”