"There are over 80 tunes for the five-string banjo," says Stephen Wade, who is working on one of them.
Wade talks alot while he is playing the banjo -- or plays the banjo a lot while he talks, and sometimes he does an emphatic, heavy-footed but very expressive kind of clog dance while he is talking and playing the banjo. He has a whole set of routines to fill those awkward moments on stage when he is going from one tuning to another. "This banjo was in tune when I bought it," he will mutter, or "Glad I don't play the harp."
And sometimes he will engage the audience in a bit of dialogue. "Anybody here with a perfect pitch?" he will ask while he is tightening a string, and if someone answers "yes," he will warn: "Don't listen."
Wade has come in from Chicago with a banjo on his knee and a cloth backpack on his shoulder to spend a few weeks in the Arena Stage's Old Vat Room. Talk to him backstage, and he still has the banjo with him. Sometimes he tunes; sometimes he just touches it, like a lover, though he can talk about it in a businesslike way:
"The thing about an old-time banjo is it's a melody, rhythm and percussion instrument all at once," he says. "It's sort of an orchestra there in your hands." On stage Wade, 27, is a frenzied bold of high energy, with unruly dark curls that stand straight up as though an electric current is running through him. His elbows tend to stick out at odd angles (an occupational hazard of banjo-playing), and he often walks, as he sits, in the semi-crouch that the instrument imposes on its devotees.
He has played this town before, with previous gigs at the Cellar Door, the White House and a long run in Northern Virginia before he even owned a banjo. "I lived here nine or 10 years ago," he says, "with my brother who was working for the government. I earned the money to buy my first banjo working in a record warehouse in Northern Virginia."
Although his act draws heavily on vintage American humor, "I am not a professional folklorist," Wade says, smiling shyly. "I'm just an entertainer whose substance and input is this kind of material. I have to love it, but I also have to know that I can make it work and that it's going to be worth the audience's time."
The Old Vat Room audience seemed to find it worth their time. Sometimes it's the banjo shifting brilliantly from a dazzling "Dixie" into a pyrotechnic "Turkey in the Straw" to finish a totally unadorned but beautifully played "Simple Gifts." Other times, it's Wade telling a sort of ghost story from the Ozarks or a bit of Jewish folklore or a long 19th-century tale of love and adventure in which nearly every word begins with "f."
The love of folk material come first and love of the banjo came later. "I was looking for a kind of music and a kind of sound," he says, "basically old-time music, and I found out that it went on the banjo." After getting his first banjo, he went back to Chicago, where he was born, started teaching himself and looked for a better teacher. "I knew about Fleming Brown, because I saw his name in Pete Seeger's book on how to play the banjo, which he illustrated, and I knew that he was from Chicago. So one day I went over to the Old Town School of Folk Music and I asked if they knew him and they said, 'Oh, yes, he's teaching here tomorrow night.' When I met Fleming, it just tore me up. His music was better than anything I ever had imagined, and he taught me everything he could."
After taking classes with Brown and others for a few years, Wade began playing in bars around Chicago and teaching banjo until he decided he was ready to go on the road. "It's an itinerant profession," he says. "I travel thousands of miles every year -- all through the U.S. and up to Canada, and I've made two trips to England. Everything's a one-night stand.I used to book myself -- call up a university and say, 'I can play theater, speech, English, music, American history, urban studies, rural studies, black studies, women's studies and myth.' I even played for a couple of physics classes and it worked out. It was one way of making some bread, because schools have more than night clubs do, you know. I just knew I didn't want to play in saloons forever. They're fine, and thank God for them, but I knew I wanted to go into a theater and do one-man shows. It was just a matter of getting enough material and being sure I could do it."
The jump to theaters began in a small Chicago playhouse called The Body Politic in May 1979, and at that point, he says, "I got real lucky -- a lot of amazing combinations just went down. The first bit of luck was that they liked it. Another Drama Critics' Association was meeting in Chicago and a lot of them came over. There was an article in Time and Rosalynn Carter saw it, and that's how I came to play the White House."
His show ran for 57 sold-out weeks in Chicago. Since then, he has played extended theatrical engagements in Vancouver, Cleveland and finally New York, where he lasted two months despite mixed reviews. "There were good reviews," he says, "but the bad ones were in key places." After a brief vacation, he comes from New York to Washington.
The act has changed along the way, and is still changing, but the basic principle is still what it was in the beginning: "Soon as I started playing," he says, "I just started talking. I never was a very good singer, so I had to do something."