Miche Braden’s performance as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” in 1991 was so impressive that her director, Joe Brancato, in Upstate New York, asked the actress whether she had a dream project that she wanted to do. She immediately said: “Bessie Smith.” It was a savvy choice, for it was Smith’s mid-1920s success as the first African American recording star that made the subsequent careers of Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan possible.
It took a while for Braden, Brancato and playwright Angelo Parra to fashion the show that they eventually called “The Devil’s Music: The Life & Blues of Bessie Smith.” But it opened at Brancato’s Penguin Rep Theatre in Stony Point, N.Y., in 2000 and has been traveling to regional theaters ever since. It makes its D.C. debut with the Mosaic Theater Company this weekend with Braden and Brancato still aboard.
“Bessie’s songs had always fascinated me,” Braden (whose first name is pronounced Mickey) recalls over the phone from her home in South Jersey, “and I figured there had to be an interesting life behind them. It’s rare to hear songs that are so right there in your face. She was a belter, and she sang from her toenails. Most vocalists that I like sing that way. I like that fullness in my music — when someone’s singing with her whole body.”
Smith was an orphan raised by her older sister in Tennessee in a Chattanooga shack, so she quickly seized the chance to join a touring black vaudeville troupe, first as a dancer and then as a singer. She was mentored initially by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the blues singer celebrated in the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” From 1912 to 1922, Smith honed her skills on the poor-paying circuit of African American theaters in the South.
But in 1922 she moved to Philadelphia, and the following year her first record for Columbia, “Downhearted Blues,” sold a reputed 780,000 copies. Suddenly she was the biggest star the black community had ever known. Rainey was called the “mother of the blues,” but Smith was dubbed their “empress.” For the next six years, she dominated the blues field with one hit record after another till the Great Depression flattened sales and then the Swing Era made her music seem old-fashioned.
Closely following the model of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” “The Devil’s Music” depicts a famous singer performing in a downscale dive near the end of her life, haunted by declining sales, unfaithful men and too much alcohol. Between songs, she grouses about racism and rivals as she tells her life story. Although Smith, portrayed by Braden, does most of the talking in the current production, she does use a bass player named Pickle (portrayed by Braden’s uncle Jim Hankin) as a foil for her complaints against the world. Also onstage in nonspeaking roles will be pianist Gerard Gibbs and saxophonist Anthony Nelson Jr.
“We set the show in what they used to call a ‘buffet flat,’ ” Braden explains, “a place where African American singers and musicians could eat and party when the white restaurants were closed to them. Only black people frequented these places, so Bessie would be comfortable hanging out there. It wasn’t her typical theater show; she was home. She could drink and talk with her friends between songs. She could relax and say what was on her mind.”
Most of the information for the show comes from Chris Albertson’s justly famous 1973 biography, “Bessie.” All 125 of her songs are contained in the box set “Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings.” The best of those songs have been boiled down to the two-CD anthology “The Essential Bessie Smith.” Her myth is so enduring that Edward Albee wrote a play called “The Death of Bessie Smith”; J.D. Salinger wrote a short story about her called “Blue Monday”; Queen Latifah starred in a 2015 HBO biopic called “Bessie,” and the Band recorded a song called “Bessie Smith” for “The Basement Tapes” album.
The most revealing document of Smith’s career, however, is the 1929 15-minute movie “St. Louis Blues.” Despite some unfortunate racial and gender stereotypes, the film captures the impact of Smith’s presence and artistry. She plays a singer who finds her man fooling around with one of the chorus girls and flies into a fury of fists and curses. After the man runs off, the now-abandoned woman sings the title song with an aching hurt that’s quite moving. Her man returns; they dance happily to a swing tune, and she glows with lust and romance. He steals her money and takes off again, leaving her to sing her woeful lament one more time.
All the incidents in this two-reeler echo events in Smith’s own life, according to Albertson. But what’s most telling is how powerfully she radiates all three emotions: anger, hurt and lust. It’s the undercurrent of vulnerability in her swaggering songs and of strength in her plaintive ballads that makes her such a compelling singer. Braden, though, has decided to emphasize the swagger over the vulnerability.
“In our show, ‘St. Louis Blues’ takes on a totally different meaning,” Braden declares. “You won’t be thinking she’s forlorn when you hear our music. It was party music; she wasn’t trying to bring anyone down. A lot of the songs dealt with breaking up, getting beat up and messing around, but she was always strong.”
Braden grew up in Detroit, working in the city’s fertile jazz and R&B scenes. She was the lead singer for a band led by Earl Van Dyke of Motown Records’ legendary Funk Brothers (Van Dyke played piano on singles by the Four Tops, Temptations and Marvin Gaye). Braden has also sung on recent jazz albums by saxophonist James Carter and violinist Regina Carter. For a brief period, she sang with Lionel Hampton, the nephew of Detroit bootlegger Richard Morgan, who was Smith’s common-law husband for the last six years of her life. Morgan was driving the car that crashed in Mississippi and killed Smith on the night after the action in “The Devil’s Music.”
“Bessie was like Billie; she lived her songs,” Braden says. “Whatever situation she went through in her life came out in her songs. Bessie taught me to live through your music, and let your music live through you. If you’re trying to sound pretty or hip, it’s just fluff. I prefer to listen to someone who’s putting their life into their songs more than just a pretty voice. Oh, yes, I too have lived through some stuff that would kill a normal person.”
Mosaic Theater Company at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993. mosaictheater.org.
Dates: Through Sept. 24.