Mosaic Theater Company Opens Season With Tribute to Bessie Smith

An actress revives the spirit of Bessie Smith. (Courtesy of Mosaic Theater)

She was brazen, bawdy and brash, and her life was the stuff that legends are made of.

Bessie Smith’s career and personality have captured the attention of many an artist, but probably none with the gusto and talent that Miche Braden puts front and center in “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith.”

Through this musical, chiefly a one-woman show, Braden recounts the high points and downfalls of perhaps the most popular blues musician in American history through song, monologues and minimal dialogue with her band members.

The scenario is the last night of Bessie Smith’s life, mere hours before she would die unexpectedly in a car crash. She and her musicians were turned away from a whites-only club in Memphis in 1937, and Bessie is singing her swan song.

Through lively, well-placed songs and stories, Braden channels Bessie Smith while interacting with the audience and immersing them in the experience.

“My interest in Bessie’s recordings, some I’d do on my gigs were, what made me choose her,” Braden said. “The lyrics which spoke of drinking, abuse, lots of sex, relationships, current events and more peaked my curiosity on the life she must have lived. I know if I could chart my life through the soundtrack of music I’ve composed and chosen to sing, I knew Bessie’s had to be a very interesting story to tell.”

“The Devil’s Music” originated out of the collaboration between Braden, who also directed and arranged the music, and Angelo Perro and Joe Brancato, who both wrote and directed the show which was an off-Broadway hit, earning Braden a nomination for the Drama Desk Award for “Best Actress in a Musical.”

“‘The Devil’s Music’ was created in the meetings with Joe and Angelo,” she said. “Joe would set up the scenarios, we would read Angelo’s drafts, I’d add music I felt helped tell the story.”

Despite the fact it was created 17 years ago, “The Devil’s Music” seems timely, as if Bessie came back to life to entertain and inform those who never knew her.

“I thoroughly enjoy doing it,” Braden said. “A lot of what goes on in ‘The Devil’s Music’ is quite relevant today. The fact that the fourth wall is down and inclusion of the fifth character [the audience] puts a new twist on the presentation every night and keeps it fresh.”

Braden is supported in the production by her band, played by Jim Hankins on bass (who is also Braden’s uncle), Anthony Nelson Jr. on saxophone and Gerard Gibbs on piano.

“I hire gigging musicians that are used to creating freshness every night,” Braden said. “My uncle Jim Hankins has been in TDM from the beginning. He has also been a major musical influence on me since birth. Anthony Nelson Jr. is the youngest of us and is a natural actor with that horn. He has been with TDM for 10 years and keeps us on our toes. Gerard Gibbs is the newest of the troupe. We worked together with James Carter, an amazing jazz saxophonist. I loved his energy on those gigs and knew he’d be perfect for TDM. He also has that hometown flavor on him. He’s the only one between me and Uncle Jimmy that still lives in Detroit.”

Braden’s enthusiasm about Bessie Smith is palpable throughout the play, particularly when it begins to enter the fateful conversation as Bessie is about to travel to the next gig, drawing the audience into the mournfulness of the impending end of the songstress.

“Being a gigging singer/musician as well an actor, I was able to bring that experience to the role,” she said. “Then there’s life — bad relationships, financial roller coaster, etc. Sometimes it’s rough reliving some things, but it makes Bessie real.”

“The Devil’s Music: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith,” runs through Sept. 24 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center (1333 H Street NW). For ticket prices and showtimes, call 202-399-7993.

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