I think my favorite moments in theaters occur when I forget I’m in a theater; when the craftsmanship and storytelling of the work in front of me is crisp, solid, and potent enough to erase the boundaries between stage and audience, between truth and fiction, between art and life.
George Street Playhouse’s “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith,” playing through Sunday, March 29, is full of those moments. I’ve never quite seen an audience leap to their feet so fast in standing ovation as they did on Friday’s opening night; if that performance and audience are any indication, George Street Playhouse has produced a well deserved, bona fide hit.
Born on April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bessie Smith was a popular singer during the 1920s. Known as the “Empress of Blues” she and her band meet us in a Memphis, Tennessee, buffet flat, complete with plenty of booze, plush furniture, and rife with shadows and smoke in every corner. It’s the perfect place for tall tales, sultry songs, and the occasional shocking secret. The evening presents us with all three. The blues legend’s life is laid bare in storytelling that is bawdy, outrageous, and heartfelt, interwoven amidst performances of 10 of her best-remembered songs (and one written in her spirit for the piece). And through it all, the specter of finality haunts Bessie, releasing one confessional or surprising story after another.
It’s September, 1937 — mere hours before her death in a car accident, and she performs for us with the urgency, honesty, and passion of a woman living on borrowed time.
The real magic of this piece stems from Miche Braden, who doesn’t play Bessie Smith so much as conjure her up in an act of arresting possession. Braden (a cornerstone of the piece since its conception in 2000) is so comfortable and certain in her portrayal that she disappears — for 90 minutes, it’s only Bessie, the band, and us. Her brazen candor and infectious sense of humor draw us in, and a moment later, we’re by her side in a moment of inescapable tragedy. It’s a spellbinding performance, even without taking into consideration her voice; and once you do consider it, it elevates the whole experience to a new level. Braden’s marvelous talent projects the inflection, skill, attitude, and verve of Bessie out into the rafters and beyond. What we witness in Braden’s performance is just short of a resurrection; it’s extraordinary.
Angelo Parra’s script, derived from a conception by director Joe Brancato, succeeds on its willingness to embrace flirtation as a storytelling technique. Bessie has no problem flirting with us or with her fantastic band — we’re all fair game, and there are no sacred cows. Bessie Smith never backed away from ribaldry or cheeky innuendo in her songs, and it’s the head-on embrace of this quality that endears her to us. We are presented with story after story of encounters appropriate and not, and Bessie shares them with us with a smile and without shame. And we return with laughter and applause.
The tragic elements of Bessie’s life are here as well — racism, both subtle and overt, the stigma of her affairs with both men and women, her love of booze — shared with us over story and song. We cheer her on, because this powerhouse of a woman has survived with her pride and lust for life intact. The evening’s one unsatisfying segment comes in the heartbreaking story of Bessie’s losing custody of her adopted son, in a court judgment spurred on by her Sapphic dalliances. A voiceover and abrupt lighting change unnecessarily yank us out of the buffet flat for a moment — but a moment later, we’re back again, and Bessie and her band continue on into the evening’s final act. It’s a minor speed-bump in an evening of wholly captivating theater.
All in all, “The Devil’s Music” is a winning package that transcends historical reenactment and theater; the performance is as authentic, gutwrenching, hysterical, and transformative as an evening of the blues is going to get, anywhere. I suspect the opening night standing ovation was just one of many this production will receive.
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through March 29. Angelo Parra’s play with music stars Miche Braden. Directed by Joe Brancato. For mature audiences. $28 to $66. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.