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The night before Bessie Smith died

The Devil’s Music’ at People’s Light

In
2 minute read
Braden: One singer’s pain.
Braden: One singer’s pain.

Bessie Smith was probably the most significant blues singer of the 1920s and ’30s, an influence on later artists ranging from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin. In fact, Joplin so revered her that in 1970, more than 30 years after Smith’s death, she helped pay for a marker for Smith’s grave in Sharon Hill, Pa. outside Philadelphia.

Angelo Parra’s The Devil’s Music is a fine tribute to the singer, a blend of biographical play and intimate blues cabaret, anchored by a spectacular performance by Miche Braden.

We’re in a Memphis after-hours establishment in 1937, the night before Smith and her lover were killed in an auto accident. Smith had been the highest paid black entertainer of the ’20s, but now her career has faltered: She hasn’t recorded in four years and is playing smaller venues.

Encounters with racism

She’s boozing heavily and shooting the breeze with the club’s jazz trio, recalling her rise from poverty in Chattanooga; her apprenticeship under another legendary blues singer, Ma Rainey; her golden years as a recording artist and star performer on the black vaudeville circuit; her encounters with Southern racism; her tempestuous marriage as well as numerous affairs with men and women alike; and her ill-fated experience as an adoptive mother.

Smith’s recollections are punctuated by Braden’s renditions of songs Smith recorded, including “Down Hearted Blues,” “St. Louis Blues” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

(Some of the lyrics of these old blues songs are surprisingly ribald, even by today’s standards. This is not a show for children.)

Feistiness and anger

As Smith, Braden gets deep inside every song, bending notes and stretching inflections to convey the character’s pain. In her monologues and exchanges with the musicians, she displays Smith’s incredible feistiness, anger and humor.

Pianist Aaron Graves, bassist Jim Hankins and saxophonist Keith Loftis back her up beautifully and serve as amusing foils and occasional dirty dancing partners. But the show belongs to Braden.

What, When, Where

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. By Angelo Parra; Joe Brancato directed. Through November 24, 2013 at People’s Light & Theatre Company’s Steinbright Stage, 39 Conestoga Rd, Malvern, Pa. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org.

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