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Blues singer Bessie Smith outrageously provocative in 'Devil's Music'

Blues singer Bessie Smith outrageously provocative in ‘Devil’s Music’

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The Center Repertory Theater is currently presenting the true story of Bessie Smith, one of the first successful black female blues singers in American history in a colorful and engaging production. The Devil’s Music is playing at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek.

Blues singer Bessie Smith outrageously provocative in 'Devil's Music'
Katrina Lauren McGraw as Bessie Smith. Photos by: www.kevinberne.com

The Devil’s Music is a thought-provoking and highly entertaining evening with an extremely talented vocal artist, Katrina Lauren McGraw, who portrays Bessie Smith in the 1930s. Smith was the foremost African American blues singer of the 1920s and ‘30s, opening the way for other major black female artists who specialized in jazz and blues music.

Busking in Chattanooga

Smith’s father died while Bessie was too young to even remember him. And by the time she was nine years old her mother and a brother had also passed away. Her older sister Viola held the family together, nurturing their meager life. Between ages 8-10 years, Bessie and her brother Andrew began busking in Chattanooga, Tenn. (entertaining on the streets) to put food on their table. When Bessie was around 18 she joined her brother as a dancer with the famous Ma Rainey and the Moses Stokes Vaudeville Company. Bessie and Rainey became long-time friends. Rainey helped Bessie to navigate the waters of show business.

Outrageously provocative

Blues singer Bessie Smith outrageously provocative in 'Devil's Music'
Ric Alexander, Wilson Brooks, Roderick Brewster, Katrina Lauren McGraw and Kenneth Little.

Before long, Bessie began vocalizing in many black owned theaters, somewhat copying Ma Rainey’s flamboyant style. Her lack of education and roughhewn down-to-earth style caused her to be rejected almost as much as she was accepted in society, which earned her a hard-core reputation as an outrageously provocative performer.

In 1920, her popular vocal hit “Down-Hearted Blues” sold over 780,000 records. It didn’t take many years before she had become the highest paid black entertainer of her time.

Grammy Hall of Fame

Then in the 1930s, she, like Billie holiday, moved from blues into the swing era. Smith’s music was so popular that three of her hundreds of songs, “Downhearted Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Empty Bed Blues” were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Katrina Lauren McGraw and Wilson Brooks.

Katrina McGraw as Bessie sings, swings, swears and talks about her past experiences in her life, captivating her audience in her 1930’s era nightclub. McGraw embodies Bessie’s overt appetite for coarse sexual banter, and at the same time totally charms her audience with her beautiful voice. She is accompanied by a sterling quartet (Kenneth Little, Ric Alexander, Rodrick Brewster, and Wilson Brooks) who provide excellent accompaniment.

The set designed by Richard Olmsted is drop-dead reminiscent of an upscale 1930’s cabaret.

This upbeat show plays in the Margaret Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek through Feb. 22. Performances are Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, go to CenterREP.org, or call (925) 943 SHOW (7469).

Charles Jarrett is a journalist, photographer and voice-over artist. He is a member of the San Francisco Theater Critics Circle. His reviews appear frequently in the Orinda News, Martinez Gazette and Rossmoor News. Email comments to megaline@comcast.net.

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