Heaven’s to Bessie! Shirely Witherspoon feeling fine and back on stage as singer Smith.

January 28, 2001.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Shirley Witherspoon wants it now that she is back.

“I’m open for businss,” she said the other day over lunch, where she discussed her upcoming role as Bessie Smith in Theatre Latté Da’s production of Edward Albee’s “The Death of Bessie Smith.”

It will mark Witherspoon’s most ambitious public performance since she became ill in 1998 and eventually underwent gallbladder surgery.

The Twin Cities singer, whose career stretches back to a stint with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1969, feels good and is taking on the role with her doctor’s blessing and encouragement. After successfully losing some weight, Witherspoon will have to put it back on, in the form of costume padding, to portray the large-boned Bessie.

“I’m petite now,” she said, smiling.

Perhaps, but his new Witherspoon hasn’t lost nay of the oversized zip that marked her performances in local clubs and theaters. In fact, the day she left the hospital in 1998, she went into the recording studio to work on a CD, released later that year.

“She’s got a lot of chutzpah,” said Peter Rothstein, Theatre Latté Da’s artistic director, who got Witherspoon onstage for this project with the help of music director Dan Chouinard.

Chouinard hatched the idea for this piece years ago. He had accompanied Witherspoon’s performance as Billie Holiday in the Cricket Theatre’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” and shortly thereafter read Albee’s spare one-act. Could it be expanded, he wondered, by adding Bessie and letting her sing?

Albee’s play is primarily an examination of racism at a hospital where Smith was brought after a car accident in September 1937. According to disputed facts, she was refused treatment at a white hospital and bled to death from her nearly severed right arm. But Smith and her music are absent.

Chouinard and Rothstein  concocted a show that sets the play within a Bessie Smith cabaret gig, using her songs to help build a new structure for the work.

Jazz to blues

Witherspoon portrayed Smith in Mixed Blood Theatre’s production of “Harlem Renaissance Revue” in the early 1980s, but she’s known more for jazz than blues. Her Challenge, she said, is to transform her vocal instrument for this production.

“We’re giving her all sorts of raunchy material,” Rothstein said.

Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith was the greatest blues singer of the 1920s, with an astoundingly big voice and keen sense of phrasing. She was the highest-paid black entertainer of the era, commanding $1,500 a week, and roared through society with a firecracker personality, huge drinking and sexual habits and a renegade attitude that made her a potent symbol to black America.

Witherspoon, 58, rose up the musical ranks to the point where she caught on for a year of touring with Ellington. She worked primarily in the Twin Cities until moving to Baltimore in 1989. Family issues brought her back within a couple years.

In an interview before departing for Baltimore, Witherspoon said she wanted to be rich and famous. Reminded of that, she chuckled.

“My priorities have changed drastically,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know Shirley Witherspoon pretty well these last 10 years. The younger Shirley was wild, crazy and zany. She was a red-hot pistol. Me and Bessie had a lot in common.”

Now she’s all about taking care of herself. “I intend to be well, I accept being well, I claim being well,” she said. “It’s a hard job, but that’s my life.”

This is only the second or third time Witherspoon has performed in public since her illness, but “it’s the first time I’ve had this much to do. I’m nervous. Real nervous, because I want to do a good job. I’m hoping someone who sees the show will ask me to sing.

She seems genuinely happy to be working with Chouinard and Rothstein.

“I’m having a ball. It gets me up early and gives me something to do. I like working with Dan, whether it’s in a play or not.” She nodded at Rothstein and said, “It feels like I’ve known him for a lifetime. He’s so cute, isn’t he? He’s soooo cute. They’re all my kids.”

Rothstein said this is a serendipitous time to stage a play about Bessie Smith. There are two shows running in New York on the blues legend – one of which stars Jennifer Holiday – and Smith is featured in Ken Burns’ “Jazz” series, currently being broadcast on PBS.

But primarily, it’s a vehicle for Witherspoon to strut her stuff again and let the world know “I’m still kicking.”