“The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith”, by The Merrimack Repertory Theatre

“The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith”

 Written by Angelo Parra; Concept, Musical
Staging, and Direction by Joe Brancato; Presented by The Merrimack Repertory
Theatre at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell.
Performances through Feb 2nd.

A funny thing happened when I went to see “The
Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith”. Instead of leaving the
theater humming one of the many classic blues songs I had just heard, I found
myself thinking about the days of segregation in America. But earlier that
night, I was being amazed by Miche Braden bringing Bessie Smith, the great
blues legend, back to life before my eyes.


Don’t get me wrong. Never is it deliberately
driven down your throat that life in 1930’s Memphis was degrading and miserable
for blacks. It’s revealed in what Bessie says about her own life. She isn’t
complaining about it. She is just telling it like it was. It was a hard life.
She even acknowledges that she may have made it harder on herself than it might
have been. For instance, she never hid her fondness for alcohol. But she also
relied on heavy doses of humor to get by.


The play is set in a “Buffet Flat”,
a sort of private establishment that was common across the country and that
allowed blacks to escape white segregation of the day. Bessie recounts her life
in 1930’s Memphis and beyond through her songs and her chats with the audience
and band members.


From the minute she walks on the stage, Braden’s
Bessie Smith insists on owning center stage and the audience quickly agrees.
This isn’t technically a one-woman show as there are three musicians who
accompany her and talk with her off to the side, but she commands your
attention from the first word to the last note. She comes on strong, down-to-earth
and brassy. But after she has you laughing and warming to her, she reveals –
bit by bit – the harsh life she led in the Deep South. Harsh even for the most
popular, talented and highest-paid black entertainers of the time.


This feels like the role Miche Braden was
born to play. She has a powerful voice and a close resemblance to Bessie. She
is able to adopt the swagger Bessie had as well. It is no wonder that she was
involved in this project from the very beginning. She and director Joe Brancato
approached Angelo Parra to write the script and the project was underway. The
play respects Bessie and her music but sticks to the truth of her life. This is
undoubtedly due to the fact that Parra was at one time a news reporter. It is a
part of what makes the play so moving. Just as you start to fall in love with
this hugely talented, genuine person you discover she is being treated as a
second class citizen by society and hurt by those around her. Her life story is
both sad and joyous enough. It doesn’t need any inflating beyond the truth.


The Devil’s Music” is a stupendous show,
especially if you’re a fan of classic blues songs. The music and performances
are amazing and fun. Miche Braden brings Bessie to life in an uncanny and
remarkable way. But while I was enjoying the music and humor, something was
bothering me. It was the realization that life was imitating art. Our predominantly
white audience was being regaled by a talented black songstress just as it
would have been in 1937 Memphis. It was a moving experience that brought home
to me in a more personal way than ever before the sadness of the Jim Crow era
in American history. After all, here was a woman I was awed by, who I could
relate to, and who I felt sorry for, and yet in Bessie’s day she could not walk
in the front door of the theater in which she was about to perform. She had to
use the back entrance because of the color of her skin.


This production of “The Devil’s Music” is a
powerful example of art at its best. On the surface it is music, singing and
dance. Bawdy humor and racy tales of the south in the 1930’s (Warning: some of the language may not be suitable for young ears – lots of F-bombs). But just below
the surface is a moving and much stronger story. A tale of a people degraded
and mistreated for their skin color on the one hand, yet regaled and applauded
for their talent on the other.  But
through their music – the one thing nobody set limits on – they let their light
shine, brilliantly. Many of those lights can still be seen today, in shows like
this. For more info, go to: http://mrt.org/





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