About The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith
A Q&A interview with Director Joe Brancato and Playwright Angelo Parra
Q: How did the idea of creating The Devil’s Music come about?
JB: Miche Braden and I had collaborated several times before on Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, and we were sitting in a café one night discussing other possible projects when Miche suggested Bessie Smith. I listened to Bessie’s music and saw the potential for a show, but it was clear we had to orchestrate it so that the pieces became more theatrical. She gave me a sample of a few songs of how she would treat the number; yet still retain the song’s integrity. I then went and researched Bessie’s life and felt that if I included a writer that I respected, who also had the skills and ability to really collaborate with us we could really create something exciting.
AP: Over lunch, in 1998 I think it was, Joe told me he and a very talented actress/singer, Miche Braden, wanted to do a show about Bessie Smith, and he asked if I’d consider writing the script. I considered it for a long nanosecond and jumped at the opportunity. Years before I had researched Bessie Smith when I directed a scene from Edward Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith, so I was roughly familiar with her tumultuous life. But, more than that, I was eager to work with Joe Brancato, a savvy and accomplished director. Shortly after, we went to a club in Manhattan where Miche was performing. After only the first few bars of a song she sang, I was wowed, and the project was born.
Q: What can you share about the process of creating the piece?
JB: Working with Miche and Angelo really gave me the faith in this project. I was intrigued by Bessie’s story, because there have been so many myths surrounding her life. Bessie was the star of her day, crossing lines of segregation through people’s enjoyment of her music. I knew Angelo Parra from some of the plays he had written, and we decided to put all of our ideas together to see what we had. When we got together at my apartment we all had a great time and really listened to each other, which was key to our collaboration over the course of a year.
Angelo presented the idea to set the play historically in its time period in a buffet flat. With a bit of creative license we set the play in a buffet flat on the evening before Bessie’s final moments. Buffet flats were places where the African American community gathered after shows because they weren’t permitted to stay in the hotels. People in the community would open up their homes for entertainment and would party until all hours of the morning to celebrate their talents and escape the troubles of their lives.
AP: I spent many months reading and researching Bessie Smith and her music. When I was ready with a draft, we began meeting regularly in a rehearsal hall in Manhattan. I’d bring in my latest draft of the play, and Miche and Joe would work with it. After which I’d go back and make revisions based on the problems and opportunities that emerged from the session. As Joe said, we collaborated intensely for a year, most of 1999.
One thing I take particular pride in is that all the incidents in Bessie’s life referred to in the play are factual; the dialogue I created, yes, but all the events are true. I felt very strongly that I wanted audiences not only to be entertained, but I wanted them to leave the theater with a greater appreciation of Bessie’s accomplishments. There was enough drama in her life without having to make up anything. We’ve had people tell us what a great time they had and that they hadn’t realized this or that about Bessie. I find that extremely satisfying.
Q: How did you decide which of Bessie’s songs to include?
JB: Angelo wrote the script with an idea of which songs would be included, but really we relied on Miche’s expertise to finalize and shape the numbers to compliment the storyline.
AP: Miche did all the arrangements and orchestrations of the songs in the play. She’s also the musical director of the show. I have to say that this project was very blessed with the fact that Miche is not only an exceptional performer but she’s also an expert in jazz and the blues. For example, for many years she was invited to Japan to perform and give lectures.
Q: Are there any changes in the show for this St. Luke Theatre production?
JB: When we first presented the show at Penguin Repertory Theatre in Stony Point, NY, years ago, it ran for four weeks and got such great response we brought it back twice, and have since performed at several great regional theatres across the country. We’ve learned a lot each time, implementing changes along the way, but we’ve approached this show fresh, which is great because it keeps us and the artists fresh as well.
Seeing it here at St. Luke’s Theatre is personally, a tremendous accomplishment. I’ve long wanted to bring the show to the theatre district in a big way. I think the arrangement of the space, and the intimate nature for the audience is just a wonderful opportunity for Miche Braden to enact this wonderful story of Bessie Smith.
AP: The Devil’s Music is a living entity. Miche is responsible for the wonderful renditions of Bessie’s songs, as I mentioned, and she’s constantly refining the selections. With Joe, well, the influence of an astute director on the development of a script can’t be overestimated. In the show there is some eye-popping movement, choreography, and musical moments that were not scripted. Meaning they were created by Joe working with Miche and the musicians. I won’t say more because I don’t want to give things away. In other words, Joe’s fingerprints are all over this show – from conception to performance – and he miraculously makes each production unique, effervescent, and more inspiring than the previous one.
Q: There are several shows written about blues artists: Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, Mahalia Jackson, etc. What makes these women so appealing for audiences?
JB: The women of the blues and these songs from that era have a true identity for the singer. The kind of compelling passionate interpretation of their lives through song is what makes these women so extraordinary. When we witness these great entertainers, like Bessie Smith, who open their heart through song, in a setting of a musical community full of compassion, we’re exposed to an experience that just moves the soul.
AP: Speaking as a writer, what I find fascinating about these women, Bessie in particular, is that they all overcame personal adversity, achieved excellence, and broke barriers both in music and society – and, in many cases, paid a high price for their groundbreaking work. The blues greats of the late 20th century have acknowledged their debt of gratitude to Bessie and those who came after her. The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is our love letter to Bessie.