Nothing can quite prepare you for the seismic impact of this innovative script in the hands of a stellar cast and designers with Bernardine Mitchell at the helm of Bessie’s Blues. Twenty years after its inaugural D.C. production, Bessie’s Blues still has the sass and flair that garnered all those Helen Hayes awards, electrified audiences, and had folks returning for more. More than a recitation of the life of Bessie Smith, the show is an homage to the style and genre of the music, and the urgency of recognizing its ongoing legacy. You really can’t get enough.
Bernardine Mitchell captures the essence of the “Empress of the Blues,” senses her pervasive spirit and influence, talks to her, and through the jazzy riff-tuned script by Thomas W. Jones II, becomes her.
With a voice that both roars and soars backed up by a penetrating bearing and presence that is felt as much as heard, Bernardine Mitchell is a powerhouse belting out the old familiar jug songs of “Pig Foot” and “Bottle of Beer.” This twentieth anniversary of the show feels brand spanking new with the updated references and timeless material. Feeling like what writer, director Thomas Jones calls a “blues poem.” the piece “explores the impulses” of music that served as the foundation for R&B, soul, jazz and more.”
Jones’ creative script has Mitchell’s character slip and slide through time and space like a celestial time traveler. Sometimes a boa accessory or pearls hint a transition as she gazes on the Dancer who personifies Bessie’s spirit, but usually, it’s Mitchell’s sheer persuasive capacity to refer to herself as “Bern,” then in a heartbeat become Bessie.
The spirit of the blues is deeply rooted in mass servitude, particularly slavery. With work rhythms and pantomime gestures of picking cotton in the field, the ensemble expresses the wretched hopelessness of oppression, crying out a periodic wail to help soothe the aching hardship.
From the dirt-poor Tennessee beginnings, Bessie Smith goes from street corners to the goofy vaudeville circuit, and falls under the tutelage of brassy, loud, brazen Ma Rainey – performed hilariously by Roz White. As the years progress, the music reflects the changes in tempo and style with Mitchell musing on the inner workings of Bessie Smith, including painful love passages.
Fellas can’t get a break in one number where they are all depicted as low down dirty, cheating, lying, and hustling, no good so-and-so’s. The female characters hold their own, cussing like sailors, belittling the men who offer thrusting enticements to get what they want. The songs reflect the urges and desires, the desperate longing for companionship where blatant offenses are overlooked or excused in the name of love, lust, loneliness and longing. “What makes me horny?” Mitchell boldly asks as herself/Bessie Smith. Jones takes full advantage of the adult themes permeating the blues and fills the script with sizzling language and explicit sexual innuendos that rate between R and grinding on X, Y, and Z.
I had forgotten the incredible effectiveness of the women entering one of the scenes carrying mannequins on their backs, representing the constant struggle of supporting a relationship. Once parked on three corners of the set, the stiff guys serve as quiet “companions” as the women try to engage and pamper them for fun effect. In a fascinating transition, with the addition of simple white hoods, they become menacing and scary, then donned with derby hats and carried by the male characters adding voices, they serve as Bessie’s unscrupulous managers out to scrounge her for every dime they can get– check out August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for more on that. Jones covers all of the territory here with a script that zooms and soars with the stellar cast and designers.
What a treat to see Roz White reprising the role of Rhythm that she originally performed when she was right out of Howard U. White tackles her roles with gravitas and worked the crowd into a frenzy with her vibrant rendition of “Get With it.” Mercy!
Vocalist Lori Williams reaches clear high decibels as Passion, L.C. Harden Jr. is a nimble, high stepping Bluesman, Djob Lyons smolders as Midnight, and Stephawn P. Stephens is a rock-solid anchor as Blood. The talented T.C. Carson rounds out the stellar ensemble as Lover who slinks and struts with a dancer’s grace and assurance, and croons with deep baritone vocals. Meanwhile, Jones has added a triple threat as writer, director, and choreographer to his duties, with laudable dance moves throughout the show, including the powerful and graceful Nia Harris as The Dancer.
Costumes by Frank Labovitz included tight-fitting black dresses and sparkly heels for the ladies, as well as a multi-colored feather cape and headgear for Mitchell. The guys sported derbies, silver vests, and even sported canes for one numbers. Mitchell’s shiny mocha full length attire for the finale compensated for the ill-fitting maroon piece with the loose fitting back that did not work well with the protruding audio gear, making it unattractive and distracting.
Jan 21 – March 15, 2015
1201 North Royal Street
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $55 – $60
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 703-548-9044
The huge letters spelling out “Blues” across the entire set are lit with incandescent lighting programmed to change colors throughout the performance. A long stairway that crosses the stage takes up performance space but the steps are used effectively and they, too, change color on cue. The sophisticated programming felt initially like unnecessary bells and whistles for a show basically about love, loss and longing, but the lighting effects added pizzazz and style for a thrilling finale.
With its creative use of character, mood, thrusting sensuality and penetrating reflection, Bessie’s Blues was ahead of its time—there simply has not been anything like it before or since. Hauntingly beautiful songs such as “Blues Keeps Callin’” and “Who Prays for Me” have staying power that I hope will ultimately be available on CD. Until then, even if you saw it twenty years ago, it’s worth a trek over to Metro Stage to catch this timeless, priceless, swaggering rendition of Bessie’s Blues.
Bessie’s Blues, written, directed and choreographed by Thomas W. Jones II . Musical Direction by William Knowles . Featuring Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Lori Williams, TC Hawkins, Stephawn Stephens Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr. and Nia Harris . Set and projections: Robbie Hayes . Costumes: Frank Labovitz . Lights: Alex Keen . Sound: Aaron Fensterheim . Production Stage Manager: David Elias. Musicians: William Knowles, keyboard; Greg Holloway, drums and percussion; Ron Oshima, saxophone (played in the original production); David Cole, guitar; and DeAndre Shaifer, trumpet. Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Debbie Jackson.