Bold, bawdy, brilliant, belted out with bluesy bravado. “THE DEVIL’S MUSIC: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” is a must-see for music lovers and theatre goers alike.
Bessie Smith Comes to DC
Who was Bessie Smith? Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” she is regarded as one of the greatest female singers of the 1920’s and the 1930s. In 1937, she suffered an untimely death at age 43 in an auto accident. Smith was a strong influence on both her contemporaries and later generations of musicians. “We hear her and feel her in the Blues, R&B, Rock and Roll, Pop and Hip-Hop,” says Victoria Murray Baatin, the new associate artistic director at Mosaic.
This biographical production, now premiering in DC, has been popular nationwide since 2000. It was an off Broadway hit in 2001. Then helmed, as in the current production, by director Joe Brancato. It shaped by singer Miche Braden, portraying Smith, whose big, contralto voice keeps audiences on the edge their seats. Braden recreates Smith’s most iconic 13 songs, with soulful gusto. In addition, Braden’s impersonation of Smith herself in the artist’s last performance is brilliant.
Empress of Blues very nearly never came to Mosaic. Mosaic founding Artistic Director Ari Roth had planned to begin the new season with a salute to jazz singer Nina Simone. When that option fell through, Brancato sent Roth an email suggesting they tackle Smith. Consider DC audiences lucky!
A Compelling Biography Set to The Blues
In the play’s plot, Smith and three members of her touring band are turned away from the front entrance at a whites-only club in Tennessee where they were scheduled to perform. Smith relocates to a nearby “buffet flat,” an informal, African-American lounge free of Jim Crow’s rules. “The devil’s on my shoulder,” she states on entrance, seething with anger. After several helpings of gin, Smith belts out her signature tunes while narrating her life from young girlhood in Chattanooga. “Trouble, trouble,” she sings. “I’ve had them all my days.” It is transfixing.
Beginning as a dancer with Ma Rainey’s troupe, Smith graduated to singing. In the 1920s, she was the nation’s highest paid black entertainer, traveling in a custom-built railroad car. Along the way, she married. She drowned this stormy union rife with mutual infidelity including Smith’s own famous bisexual affairs in gallons of gin. Her career took a turn for the worse during the Depression when Swing then in vogue cast the blues largely aside.
“The Devil’s Music” is the name given to the blues songs about hard-living and hard-drinking. These tunes differed radically different from the Gospel music of contemporary black churches. It’s the difference between Saturday night and Sunday morning, sin and salvation. Poet Langston Hughes once wrote, “Spirituals are escape songs… but the blues are today songs, here and now, broke and broken-hearted.” Just watch Bessie romance the saxophone and its player with a decidedly sexual shimmy.
Listen to W.C. Handy’s 1914 “Saint Louis Blues.” Boogie to the 1915 anthem, “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” in which Smith croons that a man she once loved has “turned me down” and “nobody cares for me.” Perhaps the best is the 1922 tune “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” “I’m just gonna do as I want to and just don’t care what people say,” sings Smith summing up her life. She was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1970, singer Janis Joplin paid for the erection of a headstone.
Listen to Smith’s entire, 125-song repertoire collected in the box set, “Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings,” or the two-disk anthology, “The Essential Bessie Smith.” But now, don’t miss her reincarnation in “The Devil’s Music.”
Catch the show at The Atlas Performing Arts Center at 1333 H Street NE. Tickets for are $40-$60. There are discounts for Capitol Hill residents and rush specials. For details, visit www.mosaictheater.org/tickets or www.todaytix.com, or by phone at 202-399-7993, ext. 2, or at the Atlas box office.
David Hoffman is a freelance writer and reviewer who lives near H Street NE. The past vice president for programs at the Woman’s National Democratic Club, in Dupont Circle, he is also active in Democratic Party issues and campaigns.