Bessie Smith: Alcoholic, drug-using, promiscuous, free-wheeling blues binger
LINDA ARMSTRONG Special to the AmNews | 8/18/2011, 10:56 a.m.
I don't tend to text message, so I don't have reason to use abbreviations, but there is one abbreviation that immediately came to my mind after I saw "The Devil's Music: The Life & Blues of Bessie Smith," playing at the St. Luke's Theatre on West 46th Street: TMI, as in "too much information."
I didn't know much about Bessie Smith except that she was a famous blues singer, but playwright Angelo Parra candidly and vividly exposes every demon Smith dealt with during her life. While I was shocked, I also left well informed as to the troubles that befell this talented singer.
Off the bat, let me say that this play is strictly for a mature audience. Parra lets us know all as Smith's character, played by Miche Braden, shares an addiction to alcohol, reefer, having a good time-including being married and cheating on her husband with a man or a woman-and letting the profanities fly.
Braden plays Smith as a high energy, sassy and obviously very sexual being, belting out some of Smith's greatest songs, including "Gimme a Pigfoot" and "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do." The audience learns of Smith's struggles growing up poor and hears of her successes in the music business-success she found with Columbia Records after Black record labels had turned her down, claiming that she sounded "too Black."
The play has Smith and her band-bass (played by Jim Hankins), piano (played by Aaron Graves) and saxophone (played by Keith Loftis)-at an afterhours club, with Smith telling her life story.
This production is entertaining and the singing is marvelous-just know that you are going to hear some wild things, especially when you consider that Smith was living in the 1920s. The things she did were completely outrageous for those times, but you also learn of the huge price she had to pay.
The production is presented by Penguin Rep Theatre and Edmund Gaynes in association with Lizanne and Don Mitchell. The production has a concept, musical staging and direction by Joe Brancato.