Like many entries in the bio-concert genre, The Penguin Rep Theatre’s tribute to blues legend Bessie Smith takes a straightforward approach. The show takes place in real time, on the last evening of Smith’s life. The setting is a “buffet flat”, the term given to after-hours spots, often created in people’s apartments, in which African Americans could eat, drink, socialize and sexualize in a time when white-owned hotels would not accommodate them. Here Bessie is amongst friends and holds nothing back from her audience, especially after numerous nips of bootleg liquor. Through song and story, she unapologetically recounts the ups and downs of her freewheeling life while trading barbs with the guys in her backup band. Though years of hard living have taken their toll on Bessie’s constitution, she can still belt with the power and beauty that earned her the sobriquet Queen of The Blues.
Raised in a tiny shack crowded with siblings, Bessie shows an early talent for music. Accompanying her brother, she earns a little money by performing on the streets of her hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. At 18, she auditions for the “Moses Stokes Travelin’ Show” and goes on the road as a dancer. Here she meets her mentor, Ma Rainey, from whom she learns what the blues is all about. She is also influenced by Ma’s bold behavior. “When that woman wanted lovin’, she got lovin’," Bessie says admiringly, adding that other women were Ma’s preferred providers of affection. Bessie exhibits much of the same self-integrity as her star begins to rise. Ironically rejected by black-owned record labels for being “too black”, she signs with Columbia Records. Her sales go through the roof and the sexuality, wit, and emotional frankness embodied in her music resonates deeply with the rapidly changing America of the 1920s.
A forced to be reckoned with, Bessie stands up to the Ku Klux Klan, survives knife wounds received in a fight with a nasty drunk, and indulges her appetite for booze (illegal at the time), nightlife and sex with various partners. For all her toughness, however, there’s one heartbreak she can’t seem to put behind her. She can handle the highs, lows, brawls and mutual infidelities that comprise her marriage to Jack Gee. But when Bessie and Jack divorce, she loses custody of their adopted son, Jack Junior (affectionately known as Snooks). Bessie loves the child with all her heart, and is a devoted mother. But the judge, influenced by accounts of Bessie’s lesbian relationships and penchant for partying, doesn’t see it that way.
Through it all, Bessie continues to make great music. Inevitably her popularity diminishes as Depression-era audiences crave more upbeat sounds to lift their spirits. She adapts to the new style and shows promise as a swing singer, though where she would have gone with this phase of her career remains tragically unknown. In the end it isn’t alcohol or violence that does her in, but rather a car accident on a dark rural highway.
Any effort to reanimate a performer of such legendary ability poses a tremendous challenge. Remarkably, performer Miche Braden fills Smith’s sassy shoes as if they were tailored just for her. Using a powerhouse voice and sly rapport with the audience, she infuses such classics as “Dirty No-Gooders Blues” and “Sugar in My Bowl” with intoxicating doses of libidinous drive, humor and depth of feeling. She handles the show’s narrative beats confidently as well, transitioning smoothly from raunchy anecdotes to more fragile moments when Bessie’s failing health gets the better of her. Braden is aided by a top-notch jazz band: Jim Hankins, bass, Aaron Graves, piano and Keith Loftis, sax. Theatrically, as well as musically, the guys give Braden something to play off of. Hankins, as the saturnine Pickle, tries in vain to talk some sense into Bessie, while Loftis heats up the room in a sexy duet with Braden. Playwright Angelo Parra finds a verbal equivalent to Bessie’s earthy musical phrasing, and loads the script with plenty of well-researched details. By the same token, he knows what to leave out, so that the evening never feels like a Wikipedia entry. Likewise the design team and director Joe Brancato make use of the space capably to evoke the period, but never allow their creativity to interfere with the show’s main attraction.
Fans of Bessie Smith will be more than satisfied with this remarkable tribute to her life and talent. For the uninitiated, The Devil’s Music will serve as a delightful introduction to the work of a musical pioneer whose influence is still felt today.
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith; Conceived and Directed by Joe Brancatol; Written by Angelo Parra; St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th Street. (212) 239-6200.