Good intentions can’t bridge the gap in ‘Bessie’

February 6, 2001.By Claude Peck, Star Tribune.

The Nurse in Edward Albee’s 1960 one-act play “The Death of Bessie Smith” has to be one of the most unpleasant characters in contemporary theater, and that’s despite unforgettable Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The Nurse is sarcastic, two-faced, uptight, cruel, argumentative, hypocritical, hypercritical and a stone racist.

In Theater Latté Da’s adaptation of “Bessie Smith,” running through the month in Minneapolis, the Nurse (Carla Noack) occupies half the stage, while across from her is famed “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith (Shirley Witherspoon), bathed in a smoky glow, dressed in red and black, singing with great warmth and charisma. The two women at the center of the play could not be more different.

And that’s a problem.

Director Peter Rothstein has chosen to add a living, singing Bessie Smith to his show, though in Albee’s play she is neither seen nor heard. It’s a decision with a major plus side: WE get to see Witherspoon, who has been on hiatus for several years with health problems, back in action. The opening-night audience cheered her as, accompanied brightly by Dan Chouinard on piano, she crooned “St. Louis Blues,” “Gimme a Pigfoot” and other memorable tunes.

But as the drama plays out, Witherspoon and the Albee play remain mostly disconnected, like a grafting that never quite takes. “The Death of Bessie Smith” takes place in Memphis in 1937, the year in which Smith, headed north with a driver to resume a stalled career, suffered fatal injuries in a crash. Thought the historical facts are in dispute, Albee’s play has nurses at two whites-only hospitals tell Smith’s driver, Jack (James Young), that she couldn’t be admitted.

Before that point, we are treated to the Nurse’s invective against, in turn, her father, a black orderly at the hospital where they work and her own boyfriend, a young doctor. This odious role is played with derisive conviction by Noack, who conveys a woman twisted stiffly by her need to put everybody in their place, below her. The only reprieve for the viewer comes near the end, when she breaks down in a spasm of self-disgust, screaming, “I am tired of the truth, and I am tired of lying about the truth, I am tired of my skin…I want out!”

It’s pretty clear why this Albee play is rarely produced. Its most interesting point may be about how whites often are fans of black music but retain their racist views. When we first meet her, the Nurse is playing records by black musicians at home. But her attitudes in the real world would make a Klansman wince. Is that any different from the hero worship of black athletes by white fans who still harbor prejudice?

Rothstein is to be applauded for trying to bring Bessie Smith back to life in this production. The approach beefs up the one-act (the production lasts just 75 minutes) and warms it. But the switching back and forth between her songs (which relate to the plot only occasionally) and the drama creates less cohesion, not more.