KPBS AIRDATE: October 13, 1993
(MUSIC, UNDER: Bessie Smith “Nobody Knows You…”)
Bessie Smith was “the Empress of the Blues.” Her black and blue music gave her power, we’re told, made her feel like a god. In “Bessie’s Blues,” we feel the power, and we’re brought to our knees. The ramblin,’ mega-watt musical is a tribute to the blues legend, and a chronicle of the background and the basis of the blues.
The San Diego Repertory Theatre opens its 18th season with this West coast premiere, written and directed by Thomas W. Jones II, who knocked our socks off last year at the Rep, with his staging of “Spunk.” To make his piece broader than a musical biography and more varied than a musical revue, Jones has created a symbolic meeting of the late, great Bessie Smith and a contemporary Atlanta blues recording artist, Bernardine Mitchell, who plays herself and Bessie, identifying all the while with the rhythm, the blood, the passion and the pain that gave rise to Bessie’s Blues. In fact, the other characters onstage with Mitchell are given just those names: Rhythm, Blood, Passion and Pain. There’s also a dancer, a lover, Midnight and a Bluesman to make up the incredible cast of eight that blows you right outta the theater.
Jones brings the same ache and agony, humor, pathos and rhythmic, stylized movement that infused “Spunk.” But the music here is everything. The onstage band is both cool and hot. The conceit of interweaving two lives, two blues singers, two stories doesn’t always work. But think of it as a springboard. It catapults the cast into some 35 songs, many of them written by Jones and Keith Rawls. Truth be told, the oldies are the goodies, all those oozing, mournful blues numbers, but the new tunes spice things up with some jazz and rock beats. It’s the spirit of survival that triumphs, and that healing power of the blues.
(Music, under and up: Bernardine “Pigfoot” and “When the World Turns Blue,” fading, under)
Bernardine Mitchell is nothing short of miraculous: she’s in perfect control, but sometimes, the music just seems to grab hold of her and take her by surprise. Magically, we get swept up, too. Although this is clearly and successfully an ensemble piece, there are two singer-standouts: Cheryl Renee as the aptly named Passion, with a voice that wakes you up and bolts you right out of your seat. And the surprise of the evening, probably the most under-used, under-valued singer in town, Damon Bryant.
The creative team has conspired to knit all the components into a shimmery, seamless whole. A simple, raked set, evocatively lit; glitzy, ever-changing costumes, and writhing, funky, hip-hop, jazzy choreography. I dare you to sit still for these three hours.
The blues, we’re told, “is a long, long way from home.” “Bessie’s Blues” is a journey, all right, and when it’s over, you know you been somewhere.
(MUSIC, under and up: Bessie Smith, “Pigfoot”)
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.