As Bernardine Mitchell rehearsed for MetroStage’s upcoming production of Bessie’s Blues, the Thomas W. Jones II musical that first played the DC area 20 years ago at Studio (taking home 6 Helen Hayes Awards), she made a keen observation: “Twenty years ago I knew how to sing this, now I know how to live it.”
In Jones’ mind, the message of the blues is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. “It resonates so much more with Ferguson and Cleveland, and there seems to be a resurgence of impulses that gave birth to that music,” he says. For example, Jones cites a moment in the second act of Bessie’s Blues when all the men sing about “needing a place to call their own” and a “ground to stand on”; he feels that’s never more true than it is today for African Americans.
“Despite a black man in the White House, there’s still a sense of feeling of being dislocated in cities, alienated and not being understood,” he says. “Even in the whole plight of Ferguson, people have been saying ‘we have been feeling this way for years.’ Now the cameras show it, and you can bare witness to reality; how internal racism has become.
“The impulse of Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, it gave life to the music and gave a voice to the voiceless,” Jones continues. “Music is a quiet riot. That hasn’t changed. We’re still tapping our foot to the same rhythm and understand where it’s coming from.”
Jones is thrilled to be presenting the show on its 20th anniversary in the DC area with his original star in place, excited about what the singer still brings to the role of famed blues icon Bessie Smith.
“Bernardine has such a tremendous voice and it amazes me how that voice has matured and opened up, and can do more now than it could 20 years ago—and it was pretty incredible then,” he says. “Life caught up to some of the music she sings about and it resonates even more deeply and profoundly now.”
It was back in 1993 when Jones first approached Mitchell about working together, looking to write something for his Georgia-based Jomandi Productions, where he served as co-artistic director. In his time at the helm, he helped turn the theatre into the third largest African-American theatre company in the U.S.
“I told Bernardine that I always wanted to write something for her and showcase the enormity of her talent,” Jones says. “She told me she had long been interested in doing something on Bessie Smith, so that set the events in motion.”
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“There are some things I’ve done since I started this rehearsal process, doing scalpel things here and there,” Jones says. “There’s a section I rewrote to feel more ‘now’ as opposed to the ’90s, contemporizing the language and scenarios a bit more.”
When Jones sat down to write the show, he wanted to do more than just create a musical biography of the “Empress of the Blues,” he wanted to write something unique.
“I decided to write the show as an evolution of the blues through the eyes of Bessie and of Bernardine herself, jumping back and forth between time and looking at the parallels,” he says. “I explored the impulses that gave birth to the music in the ’20s and at the turn of the century, and those same impulses are what you hear in contemporary music, with remnants in hip hop, jazz and R&B.”
“It became a blues poem; less than a biography, seen through the lens of artists who were compatible with one another and something that was in Bernardine’s wheelhouse,” Jones says. “It’s exciting that we’ll be doing this 20th anniversary celebration of our first time in D.C.”
Smith, of course, is one of the blues’ most prominent voices and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. She won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and has been enshrined in the Blues, Jazz and Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fames.
Through Jones’ writing and Mitchell’s performance, Bessie Smith comes to life at MetroStage.