‘In the Moment’: ‘Bessie’s Blues’ Remounted at MetroStage

It’s been a long time coming. But the time is right. The multi-Helen Hayes Award production, Bessie’s Blues is returning twenty years after it first appeared on The Studio Theater stage. It is being remounted and performed at Alexandria’s MetroStage.

Producing Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin.
Producing Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin.

Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin described Bessie’s Blues as “a musical odyssey of the blues and the African American people in the 20th century… The explosive legacy of the blues is told through the eyes and lens of Bessie Smith, the ‘Empress of the Blues’.”  The musical not only presents blues music, but melds original music that cuts across genres spanning the decades after Smith’s passing as the production travels in time. Some history for those less familiar with Bessie Smith. Smith was the most popular female blues singers of the 1920’s and 1930’s. She was known as the “Empress of Blues” until her very untimely death in a traffic fatality near Clarksdale, Mississippi on the famous Blues Highway: Highway 61. A short list of some song titles that she made popular include the likes of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “After You’ve Gone,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Down Hearted Blues.” The lyrics and music depicted pain, sadness, and longing.  Her voice made the feelings all so very real. The original musical garnered seven Helen Hayes nominations and walked away with six awards, including Outstanding Resident Musical. What is unique about the MetroStage revival of Bessie’s Blues is that a number of the original actors will reprise their roles under the direction of the original director, Thomas W. Jones II. Jones received the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Director/Resident Musical when he first directed the show. He also wrote the book and lyrics. Jones is the choreographer for this revival. Bessie’s Blues is described as, “a sonic collage of African-American musical history” by Jones. MetroStage veteran William Knowles will music direct. Asked why MetroStage was reprising Bessie’s Blues after two decades, Griffin noted that, “the stars had aligned in just the right way.” It is MetroStage’s 30th season. It was founded in 1984 as the American Showcase Theater Company, and she wanted to, “honor our long-standing collaboration” with Thomas W. Jones II as a playwright, lyricist, director, and choreographer. MetroStage wanted a special way to acknowledge the collaboration with Jones and, “all of the incredible work he has shared with our audiences over the years.” Griffin went on to describe the production of Bessie’s Blues as, “the grandest production we have produced –another example of ‘if not now, when?’” It is “a powerful story of a woman, Bessie Smith, but also of many women and people and the birth of a movement, a musical movement that continues to influence music to this day. The production travels in time, transporting an audience, taking them on a ‘musical odyssey.’ ” The words and music will touch the audience “so powerfully” while showcasing “some of the finest talent (often triple threats, since in this show they are acting, singing, and dancing like no other) in the DC area and beyond.” noted Griffin.

Bernardine Mitchell as Bessie Smith. Photo by Chris courtesy of MetroStage.
Bernardine Mitchell as Bessie Smith. Photo by Chris Banks.

Bernardine Mitchell will return in the role of the legendary blues singer, Bessie Smith (1894-1937), the role she first performed in 1995. Mitchell was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress/Resident Musical. “It is an great honor to revisit one of the great icons of show business Bessie Smith, ‘The Empress of the Blues’,” said Mitchell. Asked about differences in performing the Bessie Smith role twenty years apart, Mitchell explained, “I feel that I have grown as a woman, an artist, and as a human being. So now I have experienced many life lessons and there’s a truth about the language that doesn’t need explanation. I have my own truth that is mine to own.”

Roz White. Photo courtesy of Roz Whte.
Roz White. Photo courtesy of Roz Whte.

Another returning actor from the original production of Bessie’s Blues is Roz White in the role of Rhythm. For her performance in the original production, she received a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress. Twenty years after her first performance in Bessie’s Blues, White noted that, “as a woman and an artist I have matured tremendously. I have a deeper understanding of myself, as well as the multiple roles I am playing. This time I will definitely be digging deeper into the psyche of the women I am bringing to life.” Do current events influence her and her performance? “Absolutely!… The world around me is my inspiration for my art,” said White. She added that “I want the audiences to be proud of the history of the African-American artist and the sacrifices that were made to build the rich legacy we have contributed to the arts as a whole.” The eight-member cast of Bessie’s Blues includes Helen Hayes nominee Lori Williams as Passion, TC Carson as Lover, Stephawn Stephens as Blood, Djob Lyons as Midnight, and LC Harden Jr. as Bluesman. Joining Helen Haye Award-winning Music Director Knowles in the band will be Greg Holloway on drums, Ron Oshima on sax, and David Cole on guitar.

Carolyn Griffin and Thomas W. Jones II. Photo courtesy of MetroStage. Thomas W. Jones II and Carolyn Griffin. Photo courtesy of MetroStage.
Carolyn Griffin and Thomas W. Jones II. Photo courtesy of MetroStage.
Thomas W. Jones II and Carolyn Griffin. Photo by Chris Banks.

“I like to think that MetroStage offers plays that enlighten and enrich but also to entertain.” added Griffin. “People come to the theatre to be entertained so if we can touch their hearts and entertain all at the same time, we can be pleased with a job well done.” Wrapping up the interview with a question about the 30th anniversary of MetroStage, Griffin said, “I feel we have always showcased exceptional artists on our stage. The plays and musicals are intimate ‘little gems’ with remarkable roles for actors. This year is no exception.” More information about the MetroStage 30th season can be found here.

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Bessie’s Blues plays from January 22 to March 15, 2015 at MetroStage – 1201 North Royal Street – in Alexandria, VA.  For tickets, call the box office at (703) 548-9044, or purchase them online.