Bessie Smith Planted in Edward Albee Play

January 31, 2001.By Elizabeth Weir, The Pulse of the Twin Cities.

As artistic director of Theater Latte Da, Peter Rothstein’s passion is to fuse theater and music. Park Square Theatre’s currently running Master Class, which he also directed, is filled with glorious voices and, on February 3, Rothstein launches Shirley Witherspoon, singing the blues in Edward Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith at the Loring Playhouse. “Musical theater is the only performance art form that is truly American,” Rothstein said, “and we want to stretch the boundaries of the form.”

Rothstein’s stretch for this rarely performed, 1960, Albee one-act play is to infuse the piece with the live music of Bessie Smith, something that has not been done before. In the original play, Bessie has no presence at all.

Local jazz legend, Witherspoon, who sang with Duke Ellington in 1969, sings Bessie Smith favorites, like “Kitchen Man” and “Gimme a pig foot and bottle of beer,” songs whose words compliment the action in the play.

The Death of Bessie Smith is about a white emergency room nurse (Carla Noak) in 1937 Memphis, who is unable to reconcile her rigid racism with her love of the music of the great blues singer. The nurse refuses to allow Bessie into the emergency room of her white hospital after a car crash and legend has it that two more hospitals refused to admit the black singer, and she bled to death.

“The play gives brutal insight into racism,” said Rothstein. “One of its central themes is that in a racist culture, the oppressors ultimately oppress themselves.” Rothstein believes that having Bessie represented on stage pack the play with extra muscle. “Bessie Smith serves as the alter ego to the white nurse,” he said. “She lived a liberated, wild, wild life.” In contrast, trapped within the confines of segregation and her stiff white uniform, the nurse lives a shut up tight life.

Much of the action takes place in a hospital emergency room but, in a stage within the stage, Rothstein sets a 1930’s juke joint where Bessie sings a gig. And the joint’s audience slip in and out of roles in the drama that is taking place in the Memphis emergency room.

“We [microphone] Bessie,” Rothstein said, “so that Shirley can sing with force but we can control her voice as the action plays out.”

To gain permission to add the presence of Bessie Smith to Albee’s play, Rothstein had to negotiate with the playwright’s agents for two years. “We can’t alter the dialogue,” he said, “or the sequence of the play.”

In Latte Da’s production, Albee’s short one-act now last and hour and fifteen minutes, with no intermission, and Rothstein harbors hopes for his adaptation. “I’d love to see this go on to other productions,” he said. “The Death of Bessie Smith is a much richer play with the music on-stage-it gives it a cohesion, an art and much more power.”