The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is not a play. It is a concert with a few words between songs. That said; it is absolutely wonderful. Miche Braden roars onto the stage as Bessie, filling the entire Allen Theater with an exquisite rendition of Bessie’s greatest hits. Live piano, cello and saxophone music graces the stage all set to the beautifully reproduced backdrop of a Memphis parlor in 1937.
The main focus of this production is the music. All of the actors play the music live, in front of the audience, seamlessly weaving it into the story. While all of the actors did a splendid job playing, particular praise goes to Keith Loftis for his dance with the saxophone and of course to Braden whose performance makes the entire production worthwhile. Not only does she deliver an outstanding lyrical performance of thirteen of Bessie’s best songs, including “St. Louis Blues” and “Nobody Know You When You’re Down and Out,” but also manages to effectively evoke the character of Bessie Smith through the brief moments of monologue and dialogue slipped in, between the songs. During these moments, the audience gets some personal context for each singing number, making the emotional impact of the songs all the more forceful.
The Bessie Smith we get to know throughout the play is a strong, powerful black woman who has fought her way from the depths of southern poverty all the way to stardom. But this story is not a triumphal narrative but a tragedy. Bessie is a seriously flawed heroine, but one whose flaws make her all the more human. Many of her best qualities, her force of personality, her presence, her unwillingness to back down, are also her worst vices and lead to volatile relationships. On top of that, she is an alcoholic. Yet we sympathize with her, sometimes a little too much. But that’s not a bad thing. At one point she recounts how she shot at her husband with a rifle on account of his philandering. We don’t feel that she is justified in this act by any rational or objective standard but rather because she compels to through the conviction and sincerity of belief in her own rectitude.
That we sympathize with Bessie is further underscored by the fact that she breaks the fourth wall fairly often. Rather than communicate to other actors on stage, Bessie addresses the audience directly, as if it were an actual concert in 1937 Memphis. This fundamentally changes the nature of the play and makes it into something along the lines of historical interpretation. There’s a bit of Brechtian Theater here in the way we are introduced to themes of discrimination, racism and sexual mores of the 1930s. This is further reinforced by the set design, which favors an ultra-naturalistic interpretation of a Memphis parlor. My only criticism here is that because such little action occurs on stage, the set underscores the museum atmosphere a bit. Nevertheless, all of this makes for a very immersive experience. We don’t just watch what’s going on, on-stage, we are sucked into it, invited and compelled to see things from Bessie’s point of view, to be caught up in the emotional tornado of her life, to really feel the blues.