'Tune for Tommy' explores why the music stopped
By AL CARSON
The Herald-Sun
Friday, February 15, 2002 

Manbites Dog Theater Company's latest production, "A Tune for Tommy," may strike a chord deep within many of its viewers. 

The play is based on the life of former Red Clay Ramblers performer Tommy Thompson and the Alzheimer's-like dementia that ended his musical career when he was in his early 50s. Thompson was a banjo player and an original member of the North Carolina-based string band that made its name through old-time mountain music mixed in with Dixieland, bluegrass, country, rock and gospel. 

"A Tune for Tommy" was drawn from the writings of his daughter, Jesse Thompson Eustice, who became his main caregiver after the illness took hold. 

Thompson Eustice said her father was always the storyteller, but with his illness, the storytelling fell to her. So she began writing "Music and Art Reaching Through Alzheimer's: A Daughter's Narratives." 

"It was kind of therapeutic for me, so I just kind of kept doing it, even though a lot of people were not reading them," Thompson Eustice said. 

She posted her writings on the Internet and then she brought her writing to the attention of Manbites Dog. She calls the resulting vehicle "the story of my life and my family and how my father got involved in the music community here in the Triangle and his role in it." 

Bland Simpson, a member of the Red Clay Ramblers who has known Thompson for more than 30 years, said he was surprised and glad to see the humor in the workshop production. 

"There was a good deal more humor than I guess I might have expected," he said. "But Tommy has been a witty and funny man, both on stage and off, and I'm glad that Jesse, among the other issues and elements, let that aspect of his life shine through." 

Manbites Dog has reinvented Thompson Eustice's writings as a full-blown play, about music and life, but it's not a musical per se. It is not just a story about a man and his family, but about a battle with a disease that could touch anyone, anywhere. 

"There is so much misunderstanding about Alzheimer's," Thompson Eustice said. "People, my friends, didn't understand what I had been through, what Dad had been through. Now a lot more people understand." 

Manbites Dog Managing Director Edward Hunt said that all kinds of emotions are stirred up in the course of trying to deal with an Alzheimer's patient. 

"The list of tasks is so overwhelming that nobody could do it," he said. 

He said some of the scenes in "A Tune for Tommy" were developed from Thompson Eustice's notes and writings. 

Written by Thompson Eustice, Hunt and Manbites Dog Artistic Director Jeff Storer, "A Tune for Tommy" features Marcia Edmundson as Jesse and David Ring as Tommy. 

"I did not know [Tommy Thompson], but I had seen him perform several times," said Storer, who directs the play. "He was a charismatic energy on stage that just filled a room. He was just amazing. 

"David [Ring] did not know him and never saw him, but David is creating the character based upon the text that Jesse has written, so there must be something truthful in the text that David has been picking up on," Storer said. "David doesn't look like Tommy, but he captures the spirit of who he was, as the performer." 

Ring and Emundson are supported with live music by The Hollow Rockers Band, which includes Joe Newberry, Greg Bell, James Leva and Julie Oliver. 

"We've got actors that can sing and singers that can act," said Newberry, the musical director. "And that is so much like what Tommy used to do in his kind of narrative theater. All of a sudden, the band is part of the action, and it is fun." 

Newberry, who describes himself as an old friend of Tommy's, said he grew up in Missouri listening to Tommy as "a kid." 

"I moved down here, and I could not believe that Tommy Thompson would sit down with me and play music," Newberry said. "We lived in the same little town, in Bynum." 

Newberry was there as Thompson went from being a tremendously productive musician to a man dealing with an illness that was taking away his life. 

"He was such a brilliant writer," he said. "His songs are so well-crafted, and so evocative and so - spare, that it reminds me every night of what we have lost." 

In "A Tune for Tommy," there are three songs written by Thompson and several other numbers, some traditional folk and some adaptations. 

"One of the things that's great about this project and this story is that it's a story that comes from our soil, comes from our people," Storer said. "There's a recognition that comes about as a result of that for some of the audience, but we also hope we have crafted something that tells a universal enough story that it could have a life outside of this area, too." 

The end of the play is not the end of Thompson's life, Storer pointed out. In a hospital in Wilson, he is still breathing, thinking, dreaming, just not performing, not communicating. 

Simpson, who called Thompson "one of the smartest, wittiest, most sociable and social people I have ever known," said that as the Red Clay Ramblers continue without Tommy, they are asked about him "all the time." 

People don't know if Thompson is still alive, which brings Simpson to recall something Thompson told him. 

"He said to me many times - after he understood what was happening to him, but was quite lucid, except for moments - he said quite freely, 'I just don't want to be forgotten.' "

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