It would be tough to name who is the bigger draw in Mosaic Theater Company’s regal production of The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith (★★★★). Both Smith, the pioneering Empress of the Blues, and Miche Braden, the show’s star, musical director and arranger, put forth a strong case for dropping your own blues at the door and grabbing a seat for this musical confessional.
Although she’s been dead for nearly 80 years, Bessie Smith lives on through her still-vital jazz and blues music. The Empress might not share the stage with Braden and her polished backing trio, but both magnificent ladies fill the house as the theater dynamo storms through a roster of Smith’s hits, such as “‘Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” and “Downhearted Blues.”
Braden, who originated the role in the show’s acclaimed off-Broadway run, takes forceful command of the stage as Smith, waylaid with her band one fateful night at a hotel in Memphis. Turned away from the front door at the whites-only joint where she was supposed to perform, the singer is righteously pissed off, raring to get drunk on Tennessee moonshine, and ready to spill gut-wrenching stories about her turbulent life as one of the premier black entertainers of the early 20th century.
Angelo Parra’s saucy script cleverly builds on Smith’s bad mood — expressed with gusto in the terrific opening number — to reveal her caustic yet endearing character. By most accounts, and as portrayed here, she was a tart and talented artist, who stood up for a woman’s right to love whom she pleased, and who stood firm against bigots, cheats, and no-good men. Mentored by Mother of the Blues Ma’ Rainey, Smith reveled in her status as the baddest broad on the circuit.
Adorned in violet satin, draped in a fur stole and drenched in jewels, Braden appears every inch the Empress, whether Smith is sharing how she gets her rocks off with a chorus girl every now and then, or bringing the house down with a stirring take on “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” Boldly sexual as she enacts Smith’s ribald sense of humor, she practically wears the plush armchair of designer Brian Prather’s gorgeous hotel lobby set.
But just when she or the audience gets good and comfortable, or the storytelling threatens to veer too much towards dry fact-listing, Smith’s tale confronts the poverty in her past, or the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, Jack. That’s when the blues feel real. Braden can wrap her voice like velvet around a sentimental lyric one second, then land a hilariously bawdy dig at the sax player in the next. She also dances a mean Charleston.
Her backup players — Gerard Gibbs on piano, Jim Hankins on Bass, and Anthony E. Nelson, Jr. on sax and winds — are feisty sidemen, parrying and joking with their formidable leading lady, but they definitely are musicians first, and excellent ones at that.
Besides, the stage belongs to Braden, who carries the show through its moments of stark pain, and euphoric, foot-stomping highs, while charting a distinct personal journey. Guided by director Joe Brancato, The Devil’s Music melds the personal with a historical point of view, also telling through Bessie’s life the larger story of the blues, as art form and pop culture sensation, and as a necessary form of release for this black woman, and for many black women.
As Smith’s recollections lead her down various paths of soul-searching, the evening ranges freely. Credit to Brancato’s pacing and Braden’s rapport with the audience that the production manages the trick of delivering spontaneity, while building carefully towards a powerful climax.
As Smith explains in the play, in order to sing the blues, you’ve gotta live, love, hurt, and, most importantly, roll with it all. By the end, Parra’s revealing text and Braden’s fierce performance have shown without a doubt how that wisdom applied to the Empress of the Blues.
The Devil’s Music runs through September 24 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $20 to $60. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit MosaicTheater.org.
Metro Weekly's Emails are a great way to stay up-to-date with everything you want to know -- and more!