Many ladies sing the blues very well, but none quite like the original Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith. She helped to introduce the genre to American audiences in the 1920s and influenced such artists as Billie Holiday. She sold hundreds of thousands of records at a time when not every home had a Victrola—let alone iTunes. She appeared on Broadway and in movies, all while staying true to her own story and her singing.
Smith had a hard life—one marked by poverty, volatile relationships, and substance abuse—and died in a car accident in 1937. But Smith’s spirit lives on in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, onstage at Theatre at Arts Garage through March 26.
Interested in attending? We’re giving away a pair of tickets to the show. Click the thumbnail below to enter for a chance to win.
Drawing: March 11, 2016
Directed by Genie Croft, The Devil’s Music is an enthralling, provocative exploration into Smith’s onstage persona and offstage heartache. Smith commands the stage for 90 minutes, serenades with a soundtrack of her most memorable songs, and delves deep into the idea that “if you want to sing the blues, you’ve got to pay the dues.”
It’s a late-September night in 1937, and Smith is plagued by an eerie premonition that old man death is knocking at her door. Smith and her band had a show scheduled, but after being told they would have to enter through the back door, Smith leads the group to a different gig at a buffet flat in Memphis. It would turn out to be her last performance.
Described as a play with music, The Devil’s Music is definitely not a musical. But it does star Broadway legend Avery Sommers, and she all but brings the house down. Sommers’ knockout vocals soar against a simple blues quartet of piano (played by Elijah Taj Gee), saxophone (Cornelious Johnson), upright bass (Senegal Apostolo), and drums (Tovah Lovely). Playwright Angelo Parra weaves Smith’s backstory with some of her most famous tracks, including “Sugar in my Bowl,” “T’aint Nobody’s Business if I Do,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Sommers delivers on each one and succeeds at bringing humor and tenderness to her portrayal of Smith. When she remarks, “they couldn’t get enough of old Bessie Smith,” it’s certainly easy to see why.
|Elijah Taj Gee as Pickle the piano player and Avery Sommers as Bessie Smith in Theatre at Arts Garage’s The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. Photo by Alex Shapiro|