By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Mar 21, 2015 at 1:36 PM

Early on in the 2014-15 season, the Milwaukee Rep staged "The Color Purple." It’s a show actress Felicia P. Fields knows very well; after all, her turn as Sofia in the Broadway musical scored her a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical back in 2006.

It’s another familiar show, however, that brings Fields back to Milwaukee: "Low Down Dirty Blues," a backstage celebration of classic blues at its dirtiest and deepest as told by several nightclub singers after closing time. Fields plays Big Mama – a role she’s performed previously in Illinois and Florida – the club proprietor who joins in on the after hours fun.

Before the show makes its premiere on the Rep stage on Sunday, March 22, got a chance to chat with Fields about the blues, her Tony experience and playing the role of both performer and casting director during "Low Down Dirty Blues." You were nominated for a Tony Award back in 2006 for "The Color Purple." What was that experience like, being there and being nominated?

Felicia P. Fields: Wow, it was very surreal. Actually, I got the call while I was here working at the Milwaukee Rep at the time. I had just started a show here and got the call to come do one of the last workshops prior to the actual placing of us in a Broadway theater. I was doing a two one-act play here, but I had just got the call to leave to go and pursue that event. It turned out to be a good pursuit. (laughs) I had done all of the other workshops from the beginning – and the only person who had done all of them – so it really turned out to be something that had my name on it.

OMC: Obviously the blues are what this new show is all about. Do you remember what your first introduction to the blues was?

FF: When I was a kid, my mother and father played records when we were young. All kinds of Bobby "Blue" Bland and Muddy Waters and Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. My dad really had those old records. We’d listen to them, but more than anything, we had gospel music. Gospel music is a form of the blues with different words, but a lot of the vocalizations of gospel fit right into the blues. So we really got that influence when we were kids.

OMC: Your show features a lot of songs on the bawdier side of the blues. How is it performing those songs and sinking your teeth into some of those double entendres?

FF: Oh yes, some of those double entendres are almost straight out (laughs) but it definitely takes you on a journey of sorts, set in a show after a show. A lot of blues people, they work because they have such a passion for the blues and they enjoy doing it. A lot of times it becomes a jam session after a performance, and this is set up in that way at Big Mama’s Place. We get an opportunity to just sit around afterwards and let the audience get a peek of how we continue on.

We actually start with a lot of bawdy blues, but after we’ve done it for so long, we kind of reflect on our roots and reflect back on how we really got into the blues, turning our backs on people who were religious because we mostly started in church. Maybe we were not making great financial strides or we were passionate about the blues music. You couldn’t sing it in church, so we left church and pursued it in clubs. So a lot of what happens has a backstory in this show.

OMC: What do you think it is about the blues that has withstood the test of time, that they’re still such a cultural icon today?

FF: The blues is such an expression of love, of sadness, of pain, of joy. It just expresses so many things. They call it the blues, but certainly there are points where it’s very sexual and where – as you will see in the show – it’s an expression of pain, from losing someone or the hurt of burying someone.

There’s so many different levels of blues. You got that gut-bucket blues, and then you have that more R&B-ish kind of blues – as I would refer to as Bobby "Blue" Bland or even a B.B. King. But when you go back to Muddy Waters and Big Mama Thornton and they have the steel guitars, that’s like straight up out of the country blues. And we have a little of that steel guitar work with (co-star) Chic Street Man, so you get a sense of the different flavors of blues. You get the Billie Holiday; you go back to the Bessie Smith and even the Etta James in the show. It kind of runs the gamut of blues. 

OMC: Do you have a favorite brand of blues?

FF: For me, I like the sexual double entendre because it’s flirty. I like the intimacy of this show – it’s usually done in a smaller space – because a lot of the excitement that rests in the show comes to life because we interact with the audience and bring them along for the journey. It gets to be a thing where no two shows are ever close to being alike because at certain points, we have the audience connecting with us, and they take the journey to a different place a lot of times.

OMC: What’s been the most interesting audience reaction you’ve had doing this show?

FF: There are a couple of songs where I go into the audience, and it no longer becomes my show because, depending on who you pick, I can sit on somebody’s lap, and they won’t let me get up. (laughs) I may have a microphone, and they might sing with me. It just depends from night to night who you get to play along. It’s kind of like a rolling of the dice to see who likes to play along, who’s the real ham in the audience.

OMC: Is there any way you can detect who that is?

FF: Sometimes the lights are keeping you from really, really see, but a lot of times, when another person is up performing, you can kind of peruse what’s happening. You’re sitting there, and you can think about that, because when you get up there, you know they’re friendly enough that they’ll play along. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.