There once was a thing called a “buffet flat.” It was a sort of unlicensed after hours club where black musicians and assorted party people could carouse into the wee hours far from the menace of Jim Crow laws or other societal pressures.
And LGBT revelers were part of the scene. A frequent visitor to these buffet flats was legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. Mosaic Theater Company’s season opener “The Devil’s Music: the Life & Blues of Bessie Smith” takes place in such a venue. It makes the ideal setting for the openly bisexual Smith to freely share her story.
Penned by Angelo Parra and staged by Joe Brancato, “The Devil’s Music” takes place in 1937 on the last night of Smith’s life. His fictional account has it that after having been denied entry to a whites-only theater, Smith (Miche Braden) repairs with her band (Jim Hankins, bass; Gerard Gibbs, piano; and Antony E. Nelson, Jr., piano) to the familiarity and comfort of a nearby buffet flat where she sings for the guests. What ensues is 85 minutes of bawdy stories, booze and blues with occasional glimpses of sadness and an impending sense of doom.
Her story is epic: Born in 1896 and raised dirt poor by an older sister, young Smith sings for pennies on the streets of Chattanooga. Her undeniable talent secures her spot in the traveling show of lesbian blues pioneer Ma Rainey. Smith’s star explodes with the recording of “Downhearted Blues” and she becomes the highest paid black entertainer in America saving Columbia Records from bankruptcy. Though her marriage to philandering security guard Jack Gee is rocky, Smith finds solace and good times in the arms of assorted chorus girls.
But things awry. “The good Lord got a way of gettin’ your attention when you gits too high and mighty,” says Braden as Smith. Gee fleeces Smith and questions her ability to raise her beloved adopted son. She loses custody of the boy. Her career dims as swing music gains popularity with the public.
Braden has been playing the title role in “The Devil’s Music” for more than 17 years, yet there’s nothing rote about her powerful, unimaginably fresh performance. She possesses a strong and clear jazz voice and decked out in diamonds, fur stole and purple satin gown (compliments of costume designer Patricia E. Doherty) gives off a world weariness and enduring star power as the middle-aged, heavyset Smith.
The show’s other star, of course, is Smith’s music. The standards that Braden makes her own include that anthem to independence “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” a provocative version of “St. Louis Blues” with sax player Nelson, and a particularly heartbreaking “I Ain’t Got Nobody.”
Like other one-person memory plays, this one too feels concocted from a tried-and-true recipe. Yet playwright Parra’s use of natural dialogue and Braden’s relaxed and colorful banter with the band helps to break up the exposition.
Scenic designer Brian Prather recreates a classy 1930s buffet flat warmly lit by Todd O. Wren. There is lots of dark wood and heavy furniture (overstuffed club chair and big table crowded with chafing dishes and liquor bottles) and the walls are a blow up of Archibald Motley’s painting “Nightlife” (1941) depicting African Americans partying.
The fourth wall is torn down by Braden’s Smith. As she recounts her romantic exploits with ladies, she teasingly catches two women in the audience playing footsie. We’re all in on the joke and the pain.