Here’s the way the blues, one of two original American music forms along with jazz, really works.
First you get started trying to do something, maybe even something you like. Then comes the time when the fear and the failure and the sorrow set in. Then, and only then, you need a way to cry the blues and, lo and behold, out comes a song.
That’s the path of "The Devil’s Music, The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith," which is running at the Stackner Cabaret at The Milwaukee Rep. The production, built around the prodigious talents of Zonya Love, is just like the blues.
In the early going, the entire first act, there is a predictability to this talk-sing-talk-sing format that is one of the most awkward to manage in the bio-cabarets that make the rounds. The task is "how much talk" and "how much music." How many words do we have to say before we get to the next song? And how much of what story should the words tell?
This play written by Angelo Parra looks at the life of Smith, a "fat, ugly, little colored girl" from Chattanooga who became the most popular black entertainer in the 1920’s and 1930’s. She was the self-styled "Empress of the Blues" and nobody who bought her records, paid to see her touring shows or heard her on the radio would ever argue with the crown.
Smith lived the blues, as Love never tires of telling us. She drank. She got cheated on. She cheated. She drank some more. She ran with men. She ran with women. Then she drank some more "white lightning." And finally, she sang.
Holy cow, how she sang. Listen to her records and you hear the engine of a chugging train with cars behind it named Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin.
She started at 13, singing on the corner of 13th and Elm in front of the White Elephant Saloon in Chattanooga. Her big brother played guitar and Bessie sang and danced for pennies. She got a job touring and she was off and running, just as the blues of the rural south began to make their way into the cities in America.
People living in those cities were ready for the blues, and Bessie Smith was ready for them. Her wavering contralto wound its way around classics like "St. Louis Blues," "I Ain’t Got Nobody," and one of the most plaintive songs ever written, "Nobody Knows You when You’re Down and Out." Here's that one.
This production, with stage direction by JC Clementz and music direction by Dan Kazemi, needed to shake up a first act that was too long on talk and forced and odd byplay between Love and DeMone, who played Pickle, the piano accompanist for Bessie. By the time intermission came around, all we knew for sure about Bessie was that she was a one-dimensional stereotype of the sassy black chick done wrong. Surely there must be more to her than that.
It all came roaring into clear view in the second act.
With the kind seduction that grabs an audience in its soul, Love brought it home. She took a tour around the cabaret, teasing, flirting and dropping her sexuality and sensitivity on tables and chairs all over the place.
She told the rest of her stories quickly and with full honesty. The adoption of her son. The cheating of her husband, again. And the boy taken out of her custody.
And she had a ribald sense of humor.
"A double standard," she asked when challenged on her cheating versus that of her man cheating. "At least I got standards."
When given room and context, Love casts a spell of magic over a room. When she lets us see the honesty, the real person inside the persona, it’s breathtaking.
This production is a guaranteed hit for The Stackner. It’s got everything that draws people in, good music and a story about someone not many people know about. The only thing to wish is that there had been more time to see the real Bessie with the demons that made her drink, cheat and run around.
"The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith" runs through March 20, and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
Production Credits: Director, JC Clementz; Musical Director, Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer, Joe C. Klug; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Lighting Designer, Aimee Hanyzewski’ Sound Designer, Christian Cero; Dialect Coach, Jill Walmsley Zager; Stage Movement Director, James Zager; Casting Director, JC Clementz; Stage Manager, Anne M. Jude.
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