What the critics are saying:

Center REP reinstates the Empress of the Blues on her throne

By Lily Janiak

Posted: 01/27/20

"I got the world in a jug. The stopper's in my hand," she sings. Then she repeats it, toying with it, expanding it, making you really feel it this time. This is the blues, and that's how you do. Then comes the capper: "And I'm gonna hold onto it till you men come under my command."

These are the words sung by Bessie Smith, Queen of the Blues (then later proclaimed "Empress" of them), as "The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith" points out.

Angelo Parra's play with music, now in a Center REPertory Company production, delves into the subversive, outspoken, playful, longing-filled songs of one of the first great stars of the nascent record label system, shining a light on the whip-smart, self-possessed woman with a voice that could burrow into the bowels of the earth.

Katrina Lauren McGraw stars, backed by a four-man band.

Darryl V. Jones directs.



By Robert M. Gardner

Posted: 02/01/20

As the saxophone player (smooth Ric Alexander) steps center stage, he coaxes soulful notes and seductive rhythms to the tune of "St. Louis Blues." We are thrilled as diva Katrina Lauren McGraw channels Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, and sings her plaintive reply to the saxophone in "The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, A Play with Music."

Born into a large family in a one room house in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith is poorly educated and uses coarse language freely. Still her music propels her to the top of the record industry. Her first big hit with Capitol sold over 780,000 copies during the Depression. Bessie's music chronicles her loves and losses one momentous night in 1937.

Bessie suffers from hard drinking and cheating partners. Still, she admits that she also strays with multiple lovers, and they're not always male. Smith breaks many societal norms while becoming a huge success, making her an in-your-face pioneer for women's rights. She speaks directly to us, with drama and verve.

In Walnut Creek, the big Center REP stage glows spectacularly, with an opulent, luxurious 1930s red plush living room complete with well stocked bar. On the walls, modernist Jazz paintings lend a Harlem Renaissance ambiance. Richard Olmstead's beautifully designed set puts us back to Bessie Smith's heyday. And the projected photos above reflect Bessie's music and life.

Director Darryl V. Jones shows his sure and experienced hand in bringing out the best in the ensemble in this outstanding tribute to the legendary singer. The production sizzles with strong pacing, seamless timing, and exciting delivery. Jones' plays never fail to thrill.

Angelo Parra's story of "The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith" makes an ambitious attempt to cover her hits in this nonstop 90-minute show. It puts great demands on singer Katrina Lauren McGraw who delivers beautifully on every song. McGraw, a super talented singer, saves her strongest notes for the grand finale, a reprise of "Down and Out." She shakes the timbers and brings us to our feet!

Bessie's big hit, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" was released just two weeks before the Crash of 1929, becoming her signature song. As the country falls into the Great Depression, Americans realize that Bessie speaks the truth: "If I ever get my hands on a dollar again, I'm gonna squeeze until that eagle grins." The song's dire warning still applies—to today's specter of growing homelessness under Trumpean rule.

Between songs, Bessie spars with Pickle (ebullient Kenneth Little), her master pianist. Despite her bluster, the talented band loves her—for her many kindnesses. Little provides excellent piano accompaniment joined by a very hip group with exciting Roderick Brewster on stand-up bass and a rock steady Wilson Brooks on the drums. A very talented group of musicians!

"The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith" thrills us with an intimate look at one night in the brief life of Bessie and her America. Highly recommended.

The Devil's Music

By Victor Cordell

Posted: 01/30/20

What does it take to produce a successful jukebox musical biography? Minimally, you need a biographical subject of considerable interest and a performer who can look and sing the part with some authority. With Central REP's The Devil's Music, you get an extraordinary singer with great charisma and acting chops. Put her in a quality production that adds depth and nuance to the biography, and you have a great evening of entertainment.

Bessie Smith apprenticed with Ma Rainey, "The Mother of the Blues," and took the world of entertainment by storm in the early 1920's. Rejected by African—American owned record companies because her music was "too black" sounding, Bessie was picked up by Columbia. In 1923, her rendition of "Downhearted Blues" sold over 700,000 records in its first six months and saved the record company from bankruptcy. She would become known as "The Empress of the Blues" and was the highest paid black entertainer of her era.

Katrina Lauren McGraw portrays Bessie Smith, and what a portrayal. Bessie was unapologetic about loving life on her terms, and McGraw exudes her style with great panache and humor. She commands the stage, prancing like a cat on the prowl — with a shimmy here, a shake there, and always an air of open-face, smiling confidence. Bessie's love of hooch was legendary, which is depicted onstage with constant swigs from flasks and jiggers poured into a crystal glass.

Bessie's bisexual proclivities were also public, and her hunger is on display. Bessie wrote numerous compositions, many with concerns about social issues from the black perspective. And she repeatedly called for women to stretch beyond the moral received wisdom of the day. When McGraw writhes and rubs her hands on her body as she belts Bessie's lyrics "I need a little sugar in my bowl, I need a little hot dog between my rolls," there is little ambiguity what she's referring to.

McGraw pleases from beginning to end with her larger than life performance and by egging on the crowd to respond to her, and they do with relish. Her voice contains all of the characteristics needed for the role. Maybe a bit brighter and higher pitched than Bessie's, her mellifluous voice is dominated by well—controlled vibrato along with growl and caressed or squeezed high notes as needed.

The stage appropriately appears as an early 20th century New Orleans bordello. Supported by a four-piece band, McGraw imprints every song, most of which are upbeat blues, with her powerful voice and appealing style. But three will be known and especially appreciated by virtually everyone in the audience — the melancholy "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "T'ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do," and finally, the exquisite dirge "St. Louis Blues."

Bessie suffered many setbacks in life. Her husband, Jack Gee, philandered and abused. She was found unfit as a mother for her adopted son. Her hard living life style failed acceptance by many parts of society. Sometimes exacerbated by her fame, she faced the victimization that all black Americans in her era did, including confrontations with the Ku Klux Klan.

Yet, if there is one weakness in the show, it is that these incidents don't evoke the heart-in-the-throat response that you might expect. In part, that may derive from the interspersed and episodic nature of the dramatic parts as opposed to building a dramatic arc. Or perhaps it is because McGraw's portrayal exudes such élan, that you know that she will sweep these inconveniences aside with ease.

P.S. — Despite 7,000 attending her funeral, Bessie Smith lay in an unmarked grave for many years, as her ultimately estranged husband pocketed funds donated for her headstone. That was remedied in 1970 with a gift from one Janice Joplin.

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

By Charlie Jarrett

Posted: 01/31/20

Center REPertory Company 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.

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

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 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.

Bessie Smith's explosive music, career revived in "Devil's Music" at Center REP

By Randy McMullen

Posted: 01/21/20

Singer Bessie Smith was one of those iconic performers whose outsized talent and turbulent life story seemed a perfect match.

One of America's most successful and influential recording artists of 1920s, Smith was dubbed "The Empress of the Blues," and credited with saving Columbia Records from financial ruin. Her personal history was no less compelling: coming from a poor family to emerge as an American icon, battling chauvinism, the Ku Klux Klan and substance abuse along the way, not to mention frequent gossip about her complicated love life.

Smith's story and amazing music are captured in "The Devil's Music," a concert/jukebox musical show by Angelo Parra coming to the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Starring Katrina Lauren McGraw, the show captures Smith as dishes on her life and performs classic blues numbers, including "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do," and "St. Louis Blues," backed by a four-piece band led by pianist Kenneth Little.