[Dixielandjazz] The Devil's Music - Bessie Smith

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Mar 15 07:40:35 PDT 2009

For those in the NYC -Philadelphia Metro Areas, this play may be worth  
a look. (New Brunswick is about halfway between NYC and Philly)

Steve Barbone

March 15, 2009 - NY Times - By Naomi Siegel
She Had a Right to Sing the Blues
She’s known as “The Empress of the Blues.” “Queen” isn’t title enough  
for this red-hot mama. Swathed in fur and glitter, with a come-hither  
look that suggests a feral tiger crossed with a cuddly koala bear, she  
is clearly a force of nature before she lets loose a single howl.

Miche Braden is Bessie Smith, and “The Devil’s Music,” on stage at  
George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, is Ms. Braden’s one-woman  
evocation, in song and stream-of-consciousness monologue, of the  
singer’s life and loves.

The show, 85 minutes without intermission, was originally produced in  
2000. Conceived and directed by Joe Brancato, it has a book by Angelo  

Ms. Braden, responsible for the musical direction and arrangements,  
has starred in every one of the half-dozen or so productions since its  
premiere. A trio of talented musicians provides back-up — James  
Hankins on bass; Scott Trent on piano; and the extraordinary Anthony  
Nelson wailing up a storm on sax and clarinet.

The actress sings her heart out in more than a dozen Smith standards.  
She also wrote the music for, and performs, several additional numbers.

That Ms. Braden has the vocal technique and dramatic intensity to  
claim this material for her own is obvious from the show’s opening.  
She is a gifted performer and a natural communicator. Her down-and- 
dirty rendition of “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” is a show- 
stopper. In “St. Louis Blues,” the torrid dialogue between voice and  
sax takes this classic to new heights. “I Ain’t Got Nobody” throbs  
with heartbreak and despair.

Mr. Parro’s book touches on all the major strands of Smith’s  
biography, and Ms. Braden narrates this saga as a running patter  
between songs. We learn of the singer’s birth in Chattanooga (either  
in 1892 or 1894, depending on which family record is to be believed)  
and of the old shack, described with foul-mouthed flair, that the  
Smiths called home.

Moving into the world of show business, Ms. Braden recalls the  
performer’s being unwelcome at the front door of many establishments  
that featured her as an entertainer. A contract with Columbia Records  
followed, with her own railroad car for travel. Even though she became  
the highest-paid black performer of her day, the advent of swing  
ultimately sent her career on the skids.

Then there’s her longstanding marriage to a philanderer, Jack Gee, and  
her sexual relationships with both men and women too numerous to  
mention. Alcohol abuse takes its toll, and when her son, Jack Gee Jr.,  
is taken away from her and put in a home after she is deemed unfit as  
a mother, her world is shattered.

With just one performer to hold the spotlight, the format of “The  
Devil’s Music,” while musically rich, produces a flatness in  
presentation that even clap-alongs and communal “Amens” can’t avoid.  
It’s clear from the start that tragedy lies just around the bend, and  
the arc of the tale is never in doubt. The book’s recurring leitmotif,  
involving a premonition of an early death, plays melodramatically on  
this theme.

The musical ends in October 1937, with Ms. Smith leaving the club  
where she was performing and being critically injured later that  
evening in a car accident outside Clarksdale, Miss. She was taken to  
the local black hospital, where she later died. Even in her final  
hours, there were doors she could enter and those she could not.

“The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” is at George  
Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, through March  
29. Information: (732) 246-7717 or at gsponline.org.

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list