“If you want to sing the blues, you gotta pay the dues” — Bessie Smith
At first glance, you may think that the room with a plush easy chair, bureau, night table, red velvet curtains, chandelier, large mirrors, and potted palms was a first class hotel suite. There is even a piano and music stand in the corner. But looks are deceiving: the setting that designer Yoshinori Tanokura has created evokes what was known as a “buffet flat,” a party room in a joint designated for blacks only. The year is 1937 and the formidable blues singer Bessie Smith is hanging out with three musicians and some guests (us).
Angelo Parra’s blues-encrusted play “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” takes place on the last night of Smith’s life. As played by the bracing and talented Miche Braden, Smith (taking a slug of Jack Daniels, one of many taken during the course of the play) lets us know from the outset, “I Ain’t in a Good Mood Today.” Of course that’s just the message we expect to hear when it comes to someone who sings the blues.
It is doubtful that the devil had anything to do with the blues. But if he did, we owe him a lot of gratitude for some of the most get-under-your-skin and tell-it-like-it-is music ever created. Some familiar songs as “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “T’aint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” and others less so, “How You Ever Loved a Man Who Was No Good” and “Kitchen Man Blues,” are threaded through Smith’s blunt narrative flecked with saucy asides.
Smith’s inimitable style is also known for influencing many jazz singers. If you are a fan of the legendary blues singer, or if you have only heard of her, Braden’s terrific singing and earthy portrayal won’t disappoint. Braden embraces Smith’s sassy, sexy style and her ornery personality, and these become the driving forces behind this musical play, under the direction of Joe Brancato. Frankly, after other shows that have extolled the talents of Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday (also previously portrayed by Braden); it was time for an honest, no-holds-barred homage to the “Empress of the Blues.”
Braden, a large woman, looks classy in a black sequined dress. Her marcelled hair evokes the 1930s, as does the Charleston and the time step that she dances, trying to get her guests in a party mood, even as she herself has dark premonitions. Smith was fated to die in a car crash later that night.
It is doubtful if spending more than the 80 minutes allotted to Smith’s life could have brought more insight to understanding this tough-as-nails, hard drinking, reefer-smoking woman who admits, “I gotta give the devil his due.” Granted we see Smith getting increasingly potted but it doesn’t seem to get in the way either of the numerous songs or her detailed recollections of her childhood as one of seven children growing up in a one-room shanty in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
She tells of her tour with Ma Rainey, the blues legend Smith considered her mentor (“The Mother of the Blues done step aside for the Empress of the Blues”); her unhappy marriages, first to a brute and then to a loser; her intimate affairs with women; and her bold confrontation (“I stared into their holes”) with the Klu Klux Klan. She even survived getting stabbed in a bar brawl.
Smith’s life is characterized by her bold and fearless attitude and a desire to succeed, which she did with uncommon resolve for an African American woman during the 1920s. More than 780,000 copies were sold of her recording of Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin song “Down Hearted Blues.” Smith’s descent from fame was just as swift when swing became the new rage in music. Braden gives us a swing version of “After You’ve Gone,” but it is her deeply emotional “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” which she sings after losing her custody battle for her adopted son, in which Braden reveals another level of Smith’s pain.
Braden is joined by musicians — sax player Anthony Nelson, Scott Trent at the piano, and James Hankins as Smith’s bass player and friend “Pickle.” No song list is provided in the program, but they all fit seamlessly into this intimate-anecdotal-episodic bio-play in which Bessie Smith’s artistry is lovingly and entertainingly presented.
“The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith,” through Sunday, November 25, Passage Theater at the Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery Streets, Trenton. $25. 609-392-0766.