Elegy for a Blues Queen

February 23, 2001.By Lavender.

The character simply dubbed “the Nurse” propels gay playwright Edward Albee’s 1960 one-act play, The Death of Bessie Smith, now in an evocative production by Theater Latte Da at the Loring Playhouse. Not only is the Nurse one of the most repulsively racist figures in modern drama, but her mental cruelty borders on being unbearable to watch and take in, as well. Hence, the Nurse rates, paradoxically, as both the play’s great strength and its great stumbling block. For instance, she actually degrades an understandably upset black man named Jack as he’s dealing with the horror that his friend, the blues-singing Bessie Smith, has just bled to death in his car because the emergency ward he has just come from admits only whites.

Fortunately, however, director Peter Rothstein, music director Dan Chouinard, and music supervisor Denise Prosek seem to have recognized that as passionate and as tightly wound as both the play and the Nurse are, the actual depth of her racism can so overwhelm the audience that there’s the danger of them shutting off what was, and still is, a grave social concern in the United States.

The three have reconceptualized the piece so that Bessie’s character doesn't actually appear on stage. She is present in the form of the wonderful singer Shirley Witherspoon, who renders Smith’s trademark songs with haunting melancholy and bittersweet irony. This is a stroke of genius, because it achieves a marvelously mellow contrast to the venomous Nurse magnificently rendered by Carla Noack. We are as revolted by her as Albee intends us to be, but we can also absorb her more fully while appreciating, and perhaps lamenting, the diminished popularity of the artistic gifts of the black woman the production honors and eulogizes.