CENTEREP PRESENTS THE EMPRESS OF THE BLUES
“Listen to my story and everything will come out true”
The extraordinary local favorite Katrina Lauren McGraw becomes the “Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith with a powerful voice, enormous talent, a compelling stage presence, and a big heart. McGraw is now on stage as the legendary Bessie Smith through February 22 in CenterRep’s winter production of The Devil’s Music:The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. Directed by the award winning Darryl V. Jones, he says Bessie Smith paved the way for future Afican American female artists “She brought to her music a celebration of the spirit to overcome whatever life throws at you. Blues is not all sad. It can be joyful and sorrowful, naughty and nice.”
Artistic Director of CenterRep Michael Butler says he strives at presenting musicals about singers and musicians “Bessie Smith said ‘the greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.’” McGraw as Bessie is an actor capable of giving a larger than life performance to play the Empress, a dynamic successful blues singer of the 1920’s and 1930’s whose legacy survives to this day. Bessie Smith was a huge personality who lived large when she became one of the nation’s most successful and well paid black performers. She is also known for heavy drinking, always seen on stage with her flask of gin. Bessie had a strong personality and temper, and the courage to be vocal as an openly bisexual woman.
Written by Angelo Parra, his script opens as Bessie Smith and her musicians have been turned away from a “Whites Only” venue in 1937 Memphis. They retire to a private gin joint to perform and laugh with an intimate audience as we learn this is the last night of Bessie Smith’s life. McGraw brings down the Margaret Lesher theatre with the opening song “Bad Mood Blues”. "Get outta my way!" she sings, "I'm in a bad mood today!" From that point on, she has the audience in the palms of her hands as she powers her way through the best of Smith's most famous songs, as she shares stories about her roller coaster life of the celebrated "Empress of the Blues."
McGraw is backed up by the live band on stage featuring music director Kenneth Little on keys - who is very involved in the story line. The show is essentially a cabaret performance full of her classic songs, stories, and bawdy humor. We learn that Bessie Smith has the baggage to sing the blues, she grew up in poverty, faced virulent racism, married a drunk security guard, and had her beloved adopted child taken away from her. She personifies the blues being a good person feeling bad as she shares a mix of life stories.
Director Jones brings pride to this celebration of Bessie White, who lived an authentic life and showed other black artists how to stand up to the Music industry, and still make her own rules. The Devil's Music is no whitewashed hagiography. Playwright Parra's book exposes all of Smith's ups and downs as well as her charisma: her sexual dalliances with female show girls, and her celebrated temper. Born in 1894, Smith grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of seven children, who was orphaned at a young age and forced to live on the streets. She paid her dues in cheap vaudeville shows before joining a traveling show led by the great blues maven Ma Rainey, who became Smith's mentor.
Smith cursed right and left, taking frequent swigs from a hip flask, and complained about her break-up/make-up relationship with her drunk husband, Jack Gee "He sure put some hot stuff in my oven," McGraw, says, shaking her head and letting out a hearty laugh. Smith made enough money to get her own cabaret show and traveled the country in a railroad car she purchased after she got tired of being booted from hotels because of her color. The music is outstanding with a dozen songs including; “Blame it on the Blues”, “ Ain’t Got Nobody”. McGraw blows the roof off with her renditions of Bessie Smith classics accompanied by her sharp-dressed band. Bass player Roderick Brewster gets most of the attention along with Sax master Ric Alexander and Drummer Wilson Brooks. Kenneth Little on piano riffs the most with McGraw and the two have great on stage timing.
Bessie Smith (There'll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight, 1927) Jazz Legend
The poignant and emotional song “Baby Doll Sugar in my Bowl” fit Bessie Smith’s life and story, considering she selected most of them and even wrote a few herself. The rich standout songs range from the rocking “St. Louis Blues” in which McGraw dances during Alexander’s hot sax solo to the powerfully mournful rendition of “The Devils Dance.” When club owners would not allow her enter a theater through the front door, citing theater "policy," Smith cussed them out: "Rules is rules and fools is fools!" she said, as she rode out of town. Bessie Smith was always ready to do battle and took no guff from anyone. She survived a stabbing after a performance in her home town of Chattanooga, chasing her attacker with the knife still stuck in her clothes. She eventually made her way to a hospital and was back performing the next day.
McGraw draws the CenterRep audience in by directing her barbs at them making the show an intimate night club experience. As McGraw takes Smith's life into the 1930s, the mood gets darker as she relates how her adopted son, Jack Gee, Jr., was taken away from her by her estranged husband, who cited her temper, drinking, and lesbianism as evidence for being a bad role model. Lighting designer Kurt Landisman’s lights become dimmed and tinged with red sadness as she launches into a wailing, brooding version of “I Ain’t Got Nobody.”
The craft team provides strong support for this production. Director Jones drives this powerhouse musical but also allows the show to cover serious subjects with a deft hand. Set designer Richard Olmsted created a stylish mid-1930s hotel bar and parlor complete with a beautiful full bar. The stage is rich with drapes and echoes Bessie Smith’s class and charm. Ulises Alcala’s costumes are period appropriate and stylish, ranging from Bessie’s terrific evening gown and fur including jewelry. The band’s semi-formal suits blended well with the texture of the setting. Alyssa Tryon’s props included a full bar and many gin flasks for Bessie. Sound designer Cliff Carauthers kept the band full and McGraw’s gifted voice filling the halls and lobby of the Dean Lesher Arts Center.
Bessie Smith was a huge influence on a number of artists who followed her, ranging from Billie Holliday to Janis Joplin. This show celebrates her accomplished talent and impact with a powerhouse memorable performance by McGraw. It's been over 80 years since Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, died a lonely death at only 43, after an auto accident on a desolate Mississippi road. Katrina Lauren McGraw makes the evening celebration an amazing stand and cheer experience. Opening night the sold out crowd was on their feet even before the last note of the “Down and Out” reprise. Next up at CenterRep is PRIDE AND PREJUDICE that opens March 27th and this summer IN THE HEIGHTS open May 22nd. In the meantime a perfect way to celebrate Black History Month is to join Bessie Smith and THE DEVILS MUSIC but bring your own flask.
CENTER REP PRESENTS
The Devil’s Music!
The Life and Blues of
By Angelo Parra
Conceived by Joe Brancato and Miche Braden
Directed by Darryl V. Jones
Musical Direction by Kenneth Little,
Katrina Lauren McGraw as
Featuring: Kenneth Little: Pickle, on Piano
Ric Alexander: Saxophone,
Roderick Brewster: Bass
Wilson Brooks: Drums
MUST CLOSE FEB 22, 2020
Center REPertory Company
Margaret Lesher Theatre
1601 Civic Drive in downtown Walnut Creek
One Act 100 minutes no intermission
Photos by: www.kevinberne.com
KATRINA AND DARRYL TALK ABOUT BESSIE SMITH
Bessie Smith - Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer
ST. LOUIS BLUES. Blues Legend Bessie Smith's only film appearance. Uncut 1929