Theatre Review: One Night With Janis Joplin

A genre of theatre which we have seen developing over the past couple of decades is the concert-biography.  This is a mix of music and narrative about some performer.  Over the years, at Arena Stage, we have seen productions about Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, and now One Night with Janis Joplin.  Most of the singers that they have featured have a sense of being in history.  Janis Joplin seems a bit close… but then her brief fame was 40 years ago.

The format of this style of theatre is to string together greatest-hits as well as obscure gems.  The performers may describe some history between tunes or explain what influenced the singer in the composing or covering particular songs.  In One Night with Janis Joplin, Mary Bridget Davies, who portrays Ms. Joplin, talks about her early years listening to and singing along with show tunes that her mother put on when assigning household chores, or slipping into the back rows of black churches to absorb their gospel style.  Later, she expands her narrative to include Joplin’s early roadhouse club gigs in Texas, then introduction to rock and roll in San Francisco.  In addition to the outline of Ms. Joplin’s career, the playwright (Randy Johnson) interjects concepts about art, emotion, and stage performance that drove Ms. Joplin’s artist development.

Filling out the sound of each song is an on-stage band and three female backup singers.  On the authority of friends “who were there”, the actual band that Ms. Joplin had her initial SF debut with “was a train wreck”.  Arena stage, and it’s excellent acoustics, certainly improved on the original product.  Their playing was precise and clear both as an ensemble and during solos.

A key element that brought this beyond a tribute band evening or kiss-and-tell bio-play, was the character Blues Singer (Sabrina Elayne Carten).  Ms. Joplin talks about various African American blues singers whom she admired, Bessie Smith, Odetta, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone.  While describe what style or attitude she gleaned from these woman, Ms. Carten would perform a song in the style of that singer.  Ms. Davies would then reprise that song in her style, demonstrating the transition from the blues of the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s, to the rock and roll era of the 1960’s.  A criticism of the white musicians and audiences of the ’60’s was that they stole the music from the black musicians without giving due credit.  Mr. Johnson’s script clearly pays respect to the often ignored history of blues, including the sad lines about Bessie Smith dying on the way to a gig and being buried in an unmarked grave because she was black.

Anyone familiar with Ms. Joplin’s career knows that she would fulfill her character’s lament that fans of the blues like their women miserable and eventually dead.  Though not stated directly in the script, Ms. Joplin, after 5 years of fame, would die, usually attributed to an overdoes of heroin under sketching circumstances.  The show ends, not with Ms. Joplin singing her way off the stage, but with the band, the backup singers, and Blues Singer performing Ms. Joplin’s sing, “I’m going to Rock My Way to Heaven”.

All this music needs a setting that brings back the images of the Psychodelic Era. Justin Townsend had a field day creating a club scene with oriental carpets, dozens of end-table lights scattered around the stage, rock-club strobe and colored lights, two columns of gauzy, spiraling materials on either side, and a back wall of translucent material on which he could project colors, still and moving images, and silhouettes of dancers.  All of these stage props could quickly turn from oranges to greens to purples.  Who needs drugs?

Looking at the audience, I suspect that a few might have experimented with a few hits back in the day.  We were probably some of the younger audience members.  By the degree of enthusiasm, as the evening progressed, I would say that many attended some of those concerts before.  But, theatre audiences are usually politely quiet during a performance.  The first few numbers challenged the audience to clap at the end of the number.  Half way through the first act, they were clapping for solos and a few whoops and hollers came with some degree of spontaneity.  A few people raised their hands, but most had their bottoms security in their seats.  At the end of the first Act, when Blue Singer was portraying Aretha Franklin singing “Spirit In the Dark”, she asked the audience to stand and join in.  It took only a few seconds for the audience to be up, and one audience member to be on stage.  Oops, that was a little too authentic, and a stage hand escorted her back to her seat.  Concerts and theatre of two different types of events.

This brings up a issue about my own experience of the production, having been in elementary school at the time of Ms. Joplin’s fame.  My exposure to her music was not from “being there”, but hearing a few of her songs as replays a decade later on the rock stations (e.g. “Mercedes Benz”), and then seeing friends cover her songs in D. C. clubs decades later (e.g. “Piece of My Heart”).  My other association with Janis Joplin is through a rock singer, Larry Norman.  During that era, he was in a band, People, which opened some of Ms. Joplin’s concerts.  He watched her life from back stage.  While People was a secular band, Mr. Norman was developing his style of Christian Rock and the Jesus People movement that developed into contemporary Christian music.  His song to Ms. Joplin is on his Only Visiting This Planet album from 1973.

sipping whiskey from a paper cup
you drown you sorrow till you can’t stand up
take a look at what you’ve done to yourself
why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf
yellow finger from your cigarettes
your hands are shaking
while your body sweats
why don’t you look into Jesus
He’s got the answer

gonorrhea on valentine’s day (v.d.)
and you’re still looking for the perfect lay
you think that rock and roll will set you free
honey you’ll be deaf before you’re thirty three
shooting junk until your half insane
broken needle in hour purple vein
why don’t you look into Jesus
He’s got the answer

you work all night, you sleep all day
you take your money, throw it all away
you say you’re gonna be a superstar
but you never hung around enough
to find out who you really are

think back to when you were a child
you soul was free your heart ran wild
each day was different and life was a thrill
you knew tomorrow would be better still
but things have changed you’re much older now
if you’re unhappy and you don’t know how
why don’t you look into Jesus
He’s got the answer

Ms. Joplin credited the development of her style to both the blues and gospel.  The blues is about loneliness, searching, and find more questions than answers.  The blues is about emotion and the moment.  Gospel is about redemption, finding, and resolution.  Without getting into theology too much, Ms. Joplin’s legacy in music certainly captures the human condition in the blues.  I’m not sure that she lived long enough to bring the gospel into her tune.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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9 Responses to Theatre Review: One Night With Janis Joplin

  1. Barneysday says:

    Nice description. Although not a huge fan myself, I do remember the level of her great popularity, one I compare to Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane. Thanks for sharing

    • hermitsdoor says:

      The show had some great tunes, which I had never hear Janis Joplin cover (I’ll admit that I have heard only what the radio plays still). I’m sure Jefferson Airplane had lots of great tunes, which we shall also never hear unless we download them (or purchse the CD, or own the LP or 8-track). Unfortunately, so often a muscian’s output gets cut down to a dozen “best of”, of which only two make airplay after a decade or so. Then again, I’m not sure that I even want to know what Lady Gaga’s “best of” will be 🙂 Rock On!

  2. Vicar's Dad says:

    I am not a rock music fan, but this description of Joplin was interesting. The real solution to many of a person’s problems is that line, “Jesus is the Answer.” I have believed that for a long time.

  3. The Vicar says:

    I liked Janis Joplin ….. because Dad didn’t.

  4. cindy knoke says:

    You see the most interesting plays and I love your reviews!

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