Back in the 1920s, an African American singer/entertainer named Bessie Smith, made history in a number of ways, not the least of which was to become the highest paid black entertainer of her day. But she also made over 160 recordings for Columbia and was “at the top of the charts.” If you Google Bessie Smith albums, pages and pages of listings come up, with such intriguing titles as “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine,” “Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” and “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” However, most of the titles suggest her forte, for which she was termed the “Empress of the Blues:” “Standin’ in the Rain Blues,” “Mean Old Bed Bug Blues,” “Hard Times Blues,” and “Yellow Dog Blues” — that’s just a short starter list. Joe Lang, a former president of the New Jersey Jazz Society, tells me that though she was known primarily as one of the greatest of all blues singers, she also had a great influence on jazz singers.
Joe Brancato — who directs the production of “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” that goes into previews at Passage Theater in Trenton on Thursday, November 1, and opens on Saturday, November 3 — assures me, “This is quite a woman.” The production stars actress Miche Braden as Smith.
Brancato explains that the play is set in a place called a “buffet flat,” which he defines as any apartment or space lent to musicians to rehearse or to play for their own enjoyment. He says, “As frightening as this is to imagine, black performers could entertain at swanky hotels but after they performed they weren’t allowed to stay.” The play takes place during the last night of Bessie Smith’s life. “She has come there to party and tell some truths,” says Brancato.
He is well versed in finding a place to perform, unlikely as that place may be. As a kid growing up in the Bronx, inspired by the “Million Dollar Movies” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” on television, he put on “plays” in the alleyways between the tenements. “I remember watching television; it was my way out of the Bronx. I was nine or ten years old.” After high school, he went into the service. “I was on a ship off the coast of Nova Scotia doing shows with the sailors on board.”
After his stint in the Navy, he says he was inspired. “Boy did I come out with a passion not only for education but also for theater.” He earned a degree in English from New York University and then taught English at North Rockland County High School in New York State, where he developed a drama department and directed plays. “I tell you I’ve always directed,” he says. He taught for 15 years. But that career overlapped his next project. Thirty years ago he founded the Penguin Repertory Company in an old barn in Stony Point, New York. “I guess I didn’t see a barn; I saw a theater.” (I think he may have been inspired by some of the old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movies — come on kids, let’s put on a show.) But again he is making theater wherever he is, be it in an alley, on a ship deck, or in a barn.
Over the past three decades Penguin has grown into a professional theater that specializes in new play discovery and development as well as the revival of some plays that Brancato didn’t think had enough of a theatrical life. “I’ve been supported by so many people,” he says. First a number of his students pitched in with back stage and front-of-house jobs. He was joined five years later by his life partner, lawyer Andrew Horn, who serves as the theater’s executive director/producer. Subscribers fill the seats and have an interest in supporting their theater. “We’re so family connected that my mom does the box office.”
In addition to freelance directing at theaters all over the country, Brancato has staged concerts and cabaret acts for performers including Robert Klein and Lainie Kazan — always returning to his home base, the Penguin. While the Penguin was growing he also directed New York productions that garnered accolades including “Tryst” by Karoline Leach, mounted in spring, 2006, at the Promenade Theater (nominated for an Outer Critics Circle award for Best Off Broadway Play) and Lee Blessings’ play “Cobb,” a 2001 Drama Desk Award winner about the great baseball player.
A number of successful launches of new work includes “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” by Alan Knee, commissioned by the Penguin, which went on to become the basis for the movie “Neverland” with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. Tony Winner (for “Sideman”) Warren Leight’s play “Glimmer Glimmer & Shine” began at Penguin before going on to productions at the Manhattan Theatre Club and Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. Penguin “baby” “The Marriage Fool” by Richard Vetere became the television movie starring Carol Burnett and Walter Matthau. This September another Penguin-born play opened Off Broadway at the Abingdon Theatre under Brancato’s direction titled “The Goldman Project,” a look at the lingering legacy of the Holocaust.
The Penguin is also where the Bessie Smith saga began. Brancato had directed actress/singer Miche Braden in a number of solo shows where she created roles based on the lives of singers, such as Ma Rainey and Billie Holliday. Brainstorming one day Brancato and Braden were trying to figure out “What do we do next to survive?” Says Brancato: “I asked her if there was any other person that she could think of who is worthy of our attention at this point?” It had to be a project that they were willing to “spend years and blood, sweat, and tears on.”
Braden immediately said, “Bessie Smith.” Brancato admits that he knew almost nothing about Smith and even after listening to some of her old records, was still reticent. Braden told him, “Let me orchestrate a few of the tunes for you.” This was all that was needed to spark Brancato’s imagination. The project was on its way and playwright Angelo Parra came on board. First up was a workshop at the Penguin. Then they took “Bessie” to Florida Stage, then Hartford Stage in Connecticut, and the Melting Pot Theatre, an Off Broadway theater in New York City. Each time, they polished and refined the play and performance.
“I’m excited to be bringing it to Trenton,” Brancato says. “Now we feel that it’s ready; now it’s a ‘go.’” He had met Passage Theater’s producing artistic director June Ballinger at a meeting of artistic directors. Their enthusiasm was mutual and they of course said, “Some time we must work together.” The next step came quickly as Ballinger knew Braden, a Trenton resident, and she also knew that Brancato had directed Braden as Bessie Smith. “I’m happy to be working with June. She is so enthusiastic about theater,” says Brancato. “I’m such a fan of theaters this size across the country that give space and time to theater works that can affect each community so much.”
Brancato is clearly captivated by the Smith story. “The reason Bessie Smith has kept my interest and my steady devotion over the years, at times pushing other projects aside, is because frankly I just love that in 90 minutes you can come in, meet a woman who will be so totally honest with you about a particular period in time, and by the end the audience stands and cheers her on. I’ve seen it happen. And for that reason, the power of the theatre and the power of her performance and the music. It’s just amazing.
“Miche presents Bessie’s persona, warts and all, allows us to see the humanity in this woman as she chats and jokes with her musicians, especially the piano player, Pickles. This isn’t an old-fashioned lady and not necessarily someone you wanted to sit down and have lunch with. But she was a force to be reckoned with and her music was like none other. Bessie was an outrageous personality, a very complicated woman.”
He continues: “She brought the pain and anguish of her life on stage to sing the blues but she also brought with this a raunchy humor and the joy of escape in music. Miche brings this Bessie to us, and it’s a wild journey. Bessie was a major partier. There is a party afoot here in this play.”
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, previews Thursday and Friday, November 1 and 2, 8 p.m., opens Saturday, November 3, 8 p.m., Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Through Sunday, November 25. $25. 609-392-0766.