note: entire contents copyright 2013 by Sheila Barth
If you haven’t heard of Bessie Smith before, now’s the time to get acquainted with the legendary Empress of the Blues, whose gigantic talent left a burning imprint on her contemporaries and future megastars. Elizabeth “Bessie” Smith died Sept. 26, 1937 at age 43, from injuries sustained in a collision as a passenger with driver-longtime friend Richard Morgan and an oncoming truck, near Clarksdale, Miss. Her electrifying voice and larger-than-life presence is bombastically resurrected by Miche Braden, in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Angelo Parra’s “The Devil’s Music:The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith”.
This is one show you don’t want to miss. The 90-minute, one-act trip through the 1920s and ‘30s premiered 14 years ago in Stony Point, NY, and has been going strong in theaters nationally since then. It also received a nod at the Montreal International Jazz Festival.
Besides uncannily portraying the irreverent, irreplaceable, immortal Smith, Braden researched Smith’s life and career, directed musical arrangements. and collaborated with Parra and director Joe Brancato to resurrect Smith’s presence on stages today.
And what a presence she is! Braden doesn’t stride on stage. She strolls grandly near theatergoers, making lots of eye contact, offhandedly addressing us and her three, fantastic musicians.
The lady loves attention, booze, and craves applause, which the audience eagerly delivers. Bassist Jim Hankins, as Smith’s longtime friend-accompanist, Pickle; saxophonist Anthony E. Nelson Jr. and pianist Aaron Graves breezily swing into action, beating out those blues of yesteryear, thrilling multi-aged audiences.
Scenic designer James J. Fenton’s authentic-looking, 1937, luxurious reproduction of a “buffet flat” in Memphis, Tenn., where Black performers gathered post-performance, to relax and unwind, provides a rich glimpse into a segregated past that Smith disregarded,overcame, and reigned over, dissipating color lines between her fans. And she knew it.
Her rise from the poverty-stricken, one-room, s....y old shack in Chattanooga, Tenn., as one of seven children, of a Baptist minister and laborer; her fear of the “bogeyman” in white with a pointed hat; her parents’ and two brothers’ untimely deaths, leading to her upbringing with an unmarried aunt and performing with a brother in the streets,were tough. As a teen-ager, Smith joined Moses Stokes’ traveling minstrel show as a dancer, she says, laughing heartily, while referring to herself as an ugly, fat Black woman who’s light on her feet - and proves it.
Smith’s amazing voice and larger-than-life personality led to her eventual discovery as a recording artist with Columbia Records 1923-31; her stormy marriage to exploiter Jack Gee in 1923; to her rapid rise to fame as the Empress of the Blues and highest paid Black performer-recording artist-actress of her day, which she colorfully - and explicitly - narrates.
Braden spices her performance, singing Smith’s greatest all-time hits, including “St. Louis Blues,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “After You’re Gone,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Downhearted Blues,” “Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan),” ”‘Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” and others.
She doesn’t make any bones about her brief downfall, either, blaming the Great Depression, her bacchanal and alcohol-fueled existence. The blues died out as the Swing Era blared in, but Bessie remained undaunted, embracing the new style, and her fans welcomed her comeback in 1937.
The late, great Bessie Smith tragically joined that eternal, great chorus in the sky that year, but through Miche Braden and Co., and Smith’s legions of admirers tuning into her videos, recordings, and movies on the Internet, her big, bad, bluesy voice and hotter-than-hot personality will never die.
BOX INFO: Joe Brancato directs Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Angelo Parra’s one-act, 90-minute “The Devil’s Music:The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith,” through Feb. 2, in the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell. Check for related events. Tickets: $20-$60; seniors, 10 percent discount; students, $15; group discount for six or more. Performances:Wednesday, 2,7:30 p.m.; Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Visit www.mrt.org or call 978-654-4678; groups, call 978-654-7561.