The Devil's Music is a simple pleasure. It's not one of the Hattiloo's most ambitious shows, but it's certainly one of the company's most cohesive. Audiences enter the playing space through a comfortable parlor lounge that's one part black box theater and two parts high-end bordello. It's a sweet, time-warping transition that makes entering the theater more like walking into a comfortable sitting room, where everything's soft and inviting — The perfect place to sit down and have a little talk with Blues Empress Bessie Smith.
At this point it's time to do some disclaiming. Walking in on that set was little like walking into my own house, and maybe there's a reason for that. You see, I share a modern-decorated, 19th-Century cottage with the designer, and the red velvet curtains she's used here look awfully familiar. The wallpaper's right out of my TV room too. My wife, Charlotte Davis, has been a theater professional and project manager since before I started slinging words at the Flyer. Miraculously, our professional paths never conflicted until she joined the Hattiloo as production manager earlier this summer. What you need to know about our relationship is this: I won't have opinions about Hattiloo shows anymore. I'll know for certain everything that's wrong with any given set, because she's a bigger critic than me, and throughout production week I'll drift off to sleep at night hearing her furiously scratching items off her to-do list, and asking aloud, "Why isn't there a spittoon in this Memphis buffet flat?" "Wouldn't a plant take up some of that empty wall space?" "Why aren't there more rugs?" "Couldn't everything be even softer, more nest like?"
Like our cozy, brothel-esque house, maybe? Sure, The Devil's Music could be all that - and probably should be. I get it. But the magic happens in the transition. It just feels good hanging out in this space, and it feels even better when the spirit of Bessie Smith drops in for a visit. I'm not just saying that because, at some point, I have to close my eyes and sleep, but because it's true. Long story short, I doubt that this change in circumstances will compromise my reviewing, and if I ever begin to suspect that's happening, I'll recuse myself tout suite.
The Devil's Music is part house concert, and part memory play, as Smith's piano payer Pickles summons up fond (and not so fond) recollections from the night his Empress died. It's not a solo show, though it mostly is. Pickles is there, obviously. And a sax player. And the audience is very much a character in this immersive show. But Bessie, as played by, Samantha Miller, doesn't share the stage with anybody. She's a force, and expects to be recognized.
Director Leslie "Sticky" Reddick and Miller had their work cut out for them. The biographical monologue (with and without music) (See Lady Day at Emerson's...) has been done to death, and these kinds of shows can be hard to freshen up. This creative team has hit a mini-jackpot by keeping things simple and just letting Bessie be Bessie. This show succeeds because it puts the singer under a microscope and, in spite of the extreme close up, Miller never lets herself get caught acting. Bessie's just right there with you in the room, chatting it up, fussing, cussing, getting raw, working the house, losing her shit, going somewhere far, far away, and crashing back to earth with a shot of store bought gin. She's savory, like all those Columbia sides she recorded, but up close and so, so real.
Smith got her start singing in the Chattanooga streets. When food was scarce, she'd dance and sing at the corner of 13th and Elm Street in front of Chattanooga's White Elephant Saloon, with her older brother Andrew playing guitar. Better times were on the way, though. And worse.
At the height of her recording career the Empress was America's highest-earning black artist, headlining her own revue and touring the country in style in a customized boxcar. But she liked her liquor, her boys, her girls, and between a tumultuous marriage and an over the moon career, she manufactured enough drama to supply dozens of plays. This one's loaded with the stuff and packed full of devilish songs. Miller sings the hell out of them.
With numbers like, "Give Me a Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer)," "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," and "Sugar in My Bowl," Smith's catalog is the perfect soundtrack for sensualists, which brings me back to where we came in — literally, the parlor between the lobby and the show, where my conflict of interest resides.
The Hattiloo's transformation from scrappy little storefront sensation to Midtown institution happened at light speed. Growing pains remain evident, exacerbated by the fact that a transformation of this significance also transforms requirements, modus operandi, and expectations. Consistency, as one might expect from a seat-of-the-pants startup, has always been an issue, and it's been an even bigger issue since the move. So it's good to see The Devil's Music — a show that might have been a hacked off revue — turned into a special little event.
All I can do at this point is encourage you to take advantage of this brief, bluesy confection while it's available on the buffet. It goes down fast and easy. Then come back and tell me if you think I'm being fair.
Because, I'm not unbiased, and won't ever insult readers by pretending to be.
Quick word about the music. It's not the most musically sophisticated combo I've ever heard, and a bass would really be appreciated here. But the not-too-adorned approach also adds to the intimacy and the sense that we're just hanging out with Bessie. There's nothing harder than being on stage with nothing to say or do and, in that regard, Bessie's backup is there for her whether she's singing or not. They are present — watching, listening, and responding. It's the mirror that sells the illusion we're all in this thing together.