Play Celebrates Blues Songstress Bessie Smith
It’s 1937. The Empress of the Blues saunters into an intimate Memphis parlor with her three-man band for a night of music and storytelling. This is the setting for The Devil’s Music: The Life And Blues Of Bessie Smith.
Written by award-winning playwright Angelo Parra and staged by accomplished director Joe Brancato, The Devil’s Music: The Life And Blues Of Bessie Smith is performed by singer/actor/musician Miche Braden, supported by a jazz trio. Founder and former lead singer of the all-female group Straight Ahead, the Detroit native was a protégé of pianist Harold McKinney as well as Motown musicians Thomas “Beans” Bowles and Earl Van Dyke. Serving as musical director, Braden also wrote the arrangements.
Employing some creative license, the play is set in a “buffet flat” on the eve of Smith’s tragic death in a car accident. The charismatic Braden commands the stage, painting vivid scenes from Smith’s tumultuous life, sharing tales of love, loss and heartache with poignancy and humor, interjecting risqué banter with her musicians and the audience. “I love what I do and I love this show,” said Braden in an interview. “I give all of me … Bessie lives through me.” Braden’s compelling performance captures Smith’s brassy, soulful vocals and boisterous, fiercely independent personality, balancing her wild side and penchant for hard drinking with moments of tenderness and raw emotion.
“The show celebrates the amazing life of Bessie Smith, warts and all,” writes Parra in his Playwright’s Notes. The play doesn’t shy away from the issues of racism, Smith’s own sexuality (she was bisexual) and alcoholism. Parra refers to the play as “our love letter to Bessie”—a testament to her achievement of excellence in the face of adversity, to the way she broke musical and societal barriers, to the personal price she paid, and to her influence on the blues greats who followed in her footsteps.
Born into a poor family in still-segregated Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1894, Smith began her career in vaudeville. Moving to New York in 1923, she was signed by Columbia, garnering instant success with her first recording. Touring and recording throughout the 1920s, her session sidemen included luminaries such as Louis Armstrong. She was the highest-paid black entertainer of the time. But with the blues falling out of fashion as the decade came to a close, the mismanagement of her affairs and Smith’s heavy drinking, her career waned. Though dropped by Columbia, she continued to work fairly steadily, playing the Apollo in 1935. Astute director Joe Brancato approaches Smith’s music and life-story with reverence and insight, presenting much of this biographical information through Braden’s monologues, intermingled with Smith’s most memorable tunes.
Brancato and Braden, having previously worked together, conceived the play at a diner in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, envisioning how they might frame Smith’s life and legacy within a theatrical production, weaving music into storytelling. Brancato approached Parra, and the three collaborated over the course of a year. The play was finally staged in 2000 at Penguin Repertory Theatre in Stony Point, N.Y., and later at St. Luke Theatre in New York City, as well as several regional theaters across the United States. Its seven-day run at the Montreal Jazz Festival this summer garnered rave reviews. The off-Broadway production was nominated for several awards; Braden has been nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Braden’s sidemen are Detroit bassist Jim Hankins, dynamic saxophonist Keith Loftis (alternate to Anthony E. Nelson Jr.) and pianist Aaron Graves. The trio skillfully accompanies Braden as she captivates the audience on “St. Louis Blues,” “I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” Smith`s own “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.” With both power and sensitivity, Braden taps into The Empress’ commanding voice and her capacity to express meaning through subtle emphasis, uniquely shaping notes to amplify a depth of feeling.
“This has been one of the most beautiful experiences of my career,” mused Brancato during a phone interview. “It was a generous collaborative effort. I have no doubt that Miss Bessie’s spirit has blessed our journey.” Smith’s passionate music has the enduring ability to communicate, as evidenced by audiences’ enthusiastic applause, cheers and tears. Upcoming performances are scheduled in Cleveland on Feb. 15–March 10, 2013.