Avery Sommers Channels Bessie Smith
By Skip Sheffield
Live fast, die young. That could have been Bessie Smith’s motto. The character of Bessie Smith, one of the most renowned blues singers and songwriters of the 20th century, is being recreated by Avery Sommers, star of “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith,” continuing through March 26 at the Arts Garage 94 N.E. Second Ave., Delray Beach.
Angelo Parra’s “play with music” is set in the last year of Bessie Smith’s life on Oct. 4, 1937 at a “buffet flat” (informal night club catering to black people) in Memphis, Tennessee. Bessie was booked to perform at a big Memphis theater, but because she was black the engagement was broken rather than violate strict segregation rules.
So Bessie is not in the best of spirits when the play begins and it goes downhill from there as she drinks and drinks and becomes more belligerent and resentful.
Avery Sommers, who is a perfectly lovely lady, plays against type to create rowdy Bessie Smith, who was born in poverty, taken advantage by everyone, especially the men in her life, and in a career slump as musical tastes changed.
Sommers has a powerful voice that is actually more refined than that of Bessie Smith. She is backed by an onstage quartet anchored by a most talented pianist whose stage name is Pickle. Elijah Taj Gee, who is just 25, plays the character with fine barrel-house style.
Director Genie Croft keeps the action brisk and performed without intermission in about 85 minutes. The song list is a parade of greatest hits that should be familiar even if one is not a Bessie Smith fanatic. Poor Bessie died in a car crash in 1937 at age 43. Standards like “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” “After You’re Gone” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ continue being heard to this day. Bessie was buried in an unmarked grave, but another great, self-destructive blues singer, Janis Joplin, paid for a tomb stone in 1970. Joplin died that same year at age 27.
Tickets are $30 general admission and $40 and $45 reserved seat. Call 561-571-8510 or go to www.artsgarage.org.