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Bessie’s Blues – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
January 29, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

TC Carson, Lori Williams, Stephawn Stephens, Roz White, Djob Lyons, Nia Harris, LC Harden Jr., Bernardine Mitchell - Photo credit Chris Banks

TC Carson, Lori Williams, Stephawn Stephens, Roz White, Djob Lyons, Nia Harris, LC Harden Jr., Bernardine Mitchell – Photo credit Chris Banks

“I heard it said the Blues was the Truth.” And Bessie Smith had an intravenous line along the Truth Trail and straight to the heart of the Blues.  Bessie’s Blues is a powerful homage to Smith.  Produced by Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin this is neither a tribute concert, nor a paean to the late great blues singer, but a full throttle musical interpretation of her life and times, both good and bad.  Bernadine Mitchell, Lori Williams and Roz White are among the cast of eight powerhouse singers.

Bernardine Mitchell, Lori Williams, Djob Lyons, Roz White - Photo credit Chris  Banks

Bernardine Mitchell, Lori Williams, Djob Lyons, Roz White – Photo credit Chris Banks

Thirty-three numbers, many co-written by the show’s writer, director and choreographer, Thomas W. Jones II, are belted, scatted, swung, jived, barbershopped and tenderly delivered by this exceptional ensemble rounded out by TC Carson, Stephawn P. Stephens, Djob Lyons, LC Harden, Jr. and Nia HarrisWilliam Knowles leads the five-piece band that throws out some serious joint-jumpin’ chops.

The storyline that strings it together with soulful sounds is the rise to fame and fortune of the woman known as the “Empress of the Blues”.  Smith’s life afforded plenty of raw material for Jones to work with – – her problems with men and managers, the Great Depression, racial discrimination, and her alcoholism.  As Bessie says, “Pain ain’t got no geography.”

Mitchell, who has played iconic singers before at MetroStageMahalia comes to mind – owns this role and she proves it without a shadow of a doubt by reaching deep within to reveal the glory of her rare and matchless voice.  Mitchell could rip the skin off a crocodile with her heart-wrenching vocals that display her breathtaking vocal range and high-wattage with the ability to scale back to lullaby level when it’s called for.

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz has adorned the women in Charleston era style with boas, feathers, fringe, red hot silk gowns and sexy lurex minis, while the men sport the plaid sharkskin suits of the Minstrel shows and the sequined vests of Vaudeville hoofers.  In an uptown party scene where Smith is disastrously presented to high society, they sashay around in black tie with bowlers and canes.

Roz White, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., TC Carson, Nia Harris, Stephawn Stephens -   Photo credit: Chris Banks

Roz White, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., TC Carson, Nia Harris, Stephawn Stephens –
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Roz White plays “Rhythm” a tougher side of Smith that reveals her motivation to be successful.  “I could shake my bottom or pick cotton,” she declares which she does when she joins the Moses Stokes’ Traveling Show with Ma Rainey at St. Louis’s famed Ivory Theatre where the music speaks of “sweet steppin’ papas and hip shakin’ mamas”.

As “Passion” Lori Williams’s sweet voice adds a sexy, sultry element to the show.  On “Wet Match” (“You can’t light a fire with a wet match.”) she shows her way of sensuously carving out notes that is both alluring and assertive at the same time.

TC Carson, Nia Harris, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., Roz White, Stephawn Stephens - Photo credit Chris Banks

TC Carson, Nia Harris, Djob Lyons, LC Harden Jr., Roz White, Stephawn Stephens – Photo credit Chris Banks

Nia Harris is “The Dancer” – – a sort of alter ego to Bessie.  Wearing flapper dresses or flowing streams of chiffon, the sprite-like Harris weaves in and out of Smith’s journey, interpreting her travails through movement.  Harris, who has trained at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the Alvin Ailey School, is sheer magic as she silently executes her sinuous movements in an exquisitely choreographed interplay.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through March 15th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

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