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True Blues

If Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil, then Bessie Smith drank gin with ol' Lucifer -- and put him under the table. As soon as she steps onto the set of Florida Stage's production of The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, Smith (Miche Braden) sets the audience straight about a few things: She is neither mother nor queen of the blues; she's the empress. She turns up her nose at the expensive Stonewall gin her band members pass around, instead fishing a pint of "good ol' homemade hooch" from her purse. Referring to herself in the regal third person, she stops in front of a mirror, vainly touches a hand to her hair, and informs the audience that she will indeed be using some foul language if it suits her.

On this night in 1937, Smith and three of her band members hang out in a "buffet flat," a refuge from the white world, where blacks would go to eat greasy and dance sleazy. Despite the active presence of three band members (Terry L. Walker, Pierre Andre, and Jimmy Hankins), who cajole and accompany her, this is a solo show. The solitude seems to fuel Braden's performance, giving her an inexhaustibly dynamic stage presence from beginning to end. She unleashes a powerhouse performance -- 13 gut-wrenching tunes in 90 minutes with no intermission or scene change.

The Devil's Music is a closely woven tapestry of the late singer's music and her raucous and harrowing anecdotes. The songs poured out of Smith as passionately and feverishly as she had lived the stories that inspired them; the arrangement of music and narrative in the play highlights the symbiosis of Smith's art and life. Braden, also the musical director and arranger for the piece, has painstakingly inserted Smith's songs in a way that both embellishes the story and lends a fascinating context to the music. The songs are as essential as the script, but don't confuse The Devil's Music with a nightclub oldies medley. In an exceptional performance, Braden draws extensively from both art and soul, making this powerful show as much indebted to craft as it is to crooning.

The daughter of a Southern preacher, Bessie Smith endured poverty, sexism, and segregation to become the most influential blues singer of the '20s, paving the way for the likes of Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Ethel Waters. Along with these hardships, a wrecked marriage and the loss of her adopted son combine with a steady intake of white lightning to make for the standard down-and-out blues myth -- yet The Devil's Music bristles with humor. Under the direction of Joe Brancato, Braden infuses her performance with gestural humor, which provides a hilarious complement to Smith's wisecracking, at times making the singer a parody of herself. She winks and makes faces behind the piano player's back. She punctuates her sentences with her body, hands waving, fingers wagging, eyes rolling. Dressed in a red sequined dress and fox fur coat, her voluptuous form is at once bawdy and burlesque in tunes such as "Kitchen's Man." Later her physicality takes on a dark and ironic significance when juxtaposed with stories about the physical abuse and emotional pain of her marriage.

In the tune "I'm Wild About That Thing," Braden never stops singing, while saxophone virtuoso Andre is equally relentless, pinning her against the piano with his instrument. The searing cuts leave no doubt that the most volatile physical property of music is not the sound itself but what that sound does to human flesh.

Braden's nonverbal vocabulary is immense. As the sax slices into the bass or careens around a C-flat, her Smith wails right along with it, clutching her head in her hands or flipping her wrists to the beat. She storms, stews, wiggles, and seduces. Braden's singing voice roars from blues to jazz, leaving nothing standing in its path. Only a more spacious venue in which to showcase her talent could improve her performance.

My only sonic quibble with the show is with the inexplicable and annoying pipe organ-like sound effects that accompany Smith when she is having one of her "premonitions." (It was said that she could intuit when Old Man Death was in the vicinity.) These noises distract more than they forebode.

Playwright Angelo Parra wisely decided not to focus The Devil's Music on Smith's mysterious death. (Legend has it she bled to death because she was refused treatment at a hospital for whites only.) Instead he focuses on the singer's life, revealing not only an era of segregation and prejudice but also an inventive way of entertaining and telling stories. Smith refers to death as a real character. Her lamentations often take the form of riddles and jokes: "There's nineteen men in my neighborhood; eighteen of them are fools, and one just ain't no doggone good."

Even in the final moments of the play, in which Smith has lost her audience to swing music, she displays the raw humor that allowed her to hold up under life's difficulties. She sings "After You've Gone" in the cheery, upbeat swing tempo while simultaneously making a face as if she's just swallowed some strong medicine. Without warning she belts out a high, moaning blues note as if she could take this flimsy melody and shatter it against a wall. The Devil's Music truly captures Bessie Smith's music and life in raw and unflinching detail. For blues aficionados and theatergoers alike, this show is a treasure.

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Mia Leonin

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