Long before Men in Black, there was the Man in Black.
And now he is at Casa Mañana (at least in spirit) in the theater's staging of the musical Ring of Fire.
"This is not an impersonation," explains Jason Edwards, director and star of the show. "We have the essence of his sound and his persona, but it is not somebody trying to look and sound like Johnny Cash. It is trying to get under his skin and into his words and trying to convey that to the audience."
Nor is this musical, which had a brief Broadway run in 2006, a stage version of 2005 biopic Walk the Line.
"This is a little bit more biographical. I don't think you can categorize it as a typical Broadway musical and I don't think you can categorize it as just a Johnny Cash tribute concert. It is somewhere in the middle," says Edwards, who was part of the Broadway production. "It's really putting his stories out onstage, as opposed to somebody dressed up in black trying to impersonate him. That's what makes it interesting to me. I think it is different."
Edwards, a native of the North Carolina hamlet of Weaverville (pop. 2,646), grew up with Cash's music. Although he has played guitar since his youth, Edwards was making his way as an actor and director rather than as a musician when he landed the Cash part.
"I just played and sang and tried to be myself [at the auditions]," Edwards explains in a phone interview originating from a grocery-store parking lot in Weaverville -- the only spot where he could get a reliable cell signal in the small town, which is near Asheville. "I think being able to relate to his roots and appreciate his music and understand what he is trying to say in his work, I think that's what got me in."
While Edwards has no direct link to Cash, he certainly has had his share of close brushes with the family.
One of the first concerts Edwards attended as an adolescent was a Johnny Cash show in Charlotte. And Edwards met Cash's son John Carter Cash when Cash produced the original cast recording for Ring of Fire.
One of Edwards' classmates in a music course at Nashville's Belmont University was Cash's stepdaughter Carlene Carter ("I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen," Edwards says).
These days, Edwards says, he often sees Cash's daughter Rosanne Cash, because she lives a block away from his New York City home.
But, despite running in the same circles as the Cashes, Edwards says that his Ring of Fire experience has given him new insight into Cash's work.
"Like everybody else, I knew about his rebellious side," says Edwards, who recently finished a two-month run of this show in Denver. "I've learned a whole lot more about him. He was a lot like Elvis. He was a really patriotic and spiritual guy, more than the media gives him credit for. When Johnny Cash first went to Sun Records, he was trying to get a deal as a gospel singer."
Edwards' success with this role is the sort of thing that might inspire some qualified envy from fellow actors. "Qualified" because, as great as it is to be able to lay claim to such a major part, there is the risk of getting stuck in such a role.
But that is not something that concerns Edwards.
"I'm in heaven now. I'm spoiled. If you are going to be trapped in something, boy, this is the one you want to be trapped in. There are other things that I do and things I am yet to do. But there is just something about Johnny Cash's music and words. It hasn't gotten old yet," he says. "I feel honored and blessed."