February 5, 2015 at 10:34 am EST | by Patrick Folliard
Iconic leading ladies
Mary Todd Lincoln, gay news, Washington Blade

Bernardine Mitchell as Bessie Smith. (Photo by Chris Banks)

‘Bessie’s Blues’

 

Through March 15

 

MetroStage

 

1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria

 

$55-60

 

703-548-9044

 

 

‘The Widow Lincoln’

 

Through Feb. 22

 

Ford’s Theater

 

511 Tenth Street, NW

 

$15-62

 

800-982-2787

 

Mary Todd Lincoln was not a popular first lady. And from out playwright James Still’s “The Widow Lincoln,” it’s easy to see why.

Especially commissioned by Ford’s Theatre to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination, Still’s play covers the weeks following the president’s death in April 1965. During those dismal days, the first lady was understandably frozen with indecision, but what decisions she did make — like opting not to attend her husband’s funeral and her refusal to vacate the White House — did not help endear her to an already unfriendly populace.

Born into the wealthy Kentucky Todd clan, she was exposed to culture and educated more than most girls of her era. Marrying an Illinois lawyer was considered a step down socially. In “Washington City” as the capital was then called, she was eyed with suspicion by unionists and confederates alike. She was criticized for profligate spending and a moody disposition. In the years preceding Lincoln’s assassination, two of the couple’s four sons died in childhood. Hers wasn’t an altogether easy life.

Much of the first act is a rant — mostly against Secretary of War Stanton who takes charge of arranging the president’s funeral, and Vice President Andrew Johnson, whom the first lady perceives as a disloyal opportunist and drunkard. But mercifully, Still surrounds Mrs. Lincoln (Mary Bacon) with supportive characters, real and imagined. There’s the sensible Elizabeth Keckly (the excellent Caroline Clay). A former slave and dressmaker to Washington society, Keckly patiently yet firmly guides “Madame” to do the right thing.

Kimberly Schraf steps out of the ever present Greek chorus of mourning widows to portray Laura Keene, the grand thespian who played in “Our American Cousin,” the night Lincoln was shot. And as professional widow Queen Victoria, out actor Sarah Marshall emerges from an out-sized trunk to kindly commiserate with America’s first widow. Also on hand is tenderhearted guard Samuel Flood (Melissa Graves), an army private with a very private secret.

Elegantly staged by Stephen Rayne, “The Widow Lincoln” is a visually affective production. Wade Laboissonniere’s period costumes are spot on and emotive. Mrs. Lincoln sheds a mournful black duster to reveal a blood-splattered gown, the dress she was wearing that fateful spring night. Out designer Tony Cisek’s somber set is decorated with dark curtains and hanging lamps. A mountain of steamer trunks portends the widow’s uncertain future.

Across the Potomac at MetroStage in Alexandria, Bernardine Mitchell is reprising a part she played at D.C.’s Studio Theatre 20 years ago: bisexual singer Bessie Smith in Thomas W. Jones II’s “Bessie’s Blues.” Her current take on the part is rich and textured. She approaches Smith as an accomplished but unpretentious woman who knows life, portraying her exquisite pain and let-the-good-times-roll attitude with equal authenticity. And Mitchell’s voice is superb. Effortlessly (or so it seems), she performs the lion’s share of the show’s lengthy score, a combination of original melodic, sometimes hard-driving works as well as tunes that Smith made popular in the ‘20s and ‘30s like “A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine” and “Gimme a Pigfoot.”

Written, directed and choreographed by Jones, the biographic work hopscotches through the career and personal life of blues great Smith (1894-1937), spanning from her humble Chattanooga origins to recording artist stardom. He covers her unsuccessful marriage and rather obliquely addresses her many romantic liaisons with both men and women. Jones describes the affairs as Bessie searching for herself in the eyes of each new partner.

Jones’ script cuts back and forth in time with Mitchell playing Bern, a contemporary nightclub singer, and Smith. In linking these two black women he reveals the continuing story of blues in music history. Mitchell is surrounded by an appealing seven person ensemble cast. Roz White who also appeared in the 1995 Studio version doubles as Rhythm and as Ma Rainey, the hard-living lesbian blues pioneer who plucked Smith from obscurity. And baritone TC Carson probably best known for playing Kyle on TV’s “Living Single” is terrific as Lover and Smith’s oily husband Jack Gee. Nia Harris plays the specter of a young, joyful Bessie dressed in flapper gear. The cast also includes Stephawn P. Stephens, Djob Lyons, LC Harden, Jr. and Lori Williams.

Robbie Hayes’ sleek set makes an impact (eight foot illuminated letters spelling out BLUES), but its four steep steps occasionally prove hard to climb for ladies in heels. The show’s superb five-person band led by musical director William Knowles is nestled off to the side. With the exception of two numbers using male mannequins, Jones’ staging is inspired.

This is a musical bubbling with wisecracks and great tunes. But a theme of longing also runs through it, a slightly sorrow-tinged hunger manifested in Smith’s hunt for fame, fun, drink and love.  She wasn’t any one thing. And “Bessie’s Blues” celebrates just that.

 

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