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Joe Brancato Plays Devil's Advocate

The busy director discusses his hit show The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. logo
Joe Brancato
(© Tristan Fuge)
Earlier this summer, one really couldn't blame director Joe Brancato if he literally didn't know if he was coming or going: he was shuttling at one point between rehearsals of The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, which has settled in for an open-ended run at the Theatre at St Luke's; his acclaimed production of Karoline Leach's thriller Tryst, which recently concluded its engagement at the Irish Repertory Theater, and his artistic base, Penguin Repertory Theatre in Stony Point, which is currently finishing up its summer season with Donald Margulies' Shipwrecked! An Entertainment.

"It was busy, but a very nice summer," says Brancato. "It's been particularly fulfilling to see The Devil's Music, which originated at Penguin Rep 10 years ago, be so well accepted in New York."

The Devil's Music, which stars Miche Braden in the title role, is set just hours before Smith's untimely death in a car crash, as the legendary blues singer performs a set at an after-hours club in the Deep South -- after being refused entrance through the front door of the whites-only club in which she was supposed to headline. The 90-minute piece includes healthy doses of Braden performing some of Smith's best known songs, such as "St. Louis Woman," while letting audiences know much about Smith's troubled life, including the terrible custody battle over her son which resulted, in part, from Smith's open bisexuality.

"About 10 years ago, Miche and I were trying to figure out what to do just to survive, and she mentioned that she was interesting in playing Bessie Smith, " says Brancato. "I wasn't sure if it would be viable, and I said to her, we need to find the right way to tell her story. So I found our writer Angelo Parra, who had the discipline to really get a draft done and find Bessie's voice. We had meetings for a year, because it's really hard to do a bioplay. We are so lucky to have Miche, who's a genius, and who is so committed to the part. She really creates this hard-bitten but ultimately loveable character."

Miche Braden and Keith Loftis in The Devil's Music
(© John Quilty)
Brancato says that it was important that the piece appeal to both African-American audiences, as well as other. "I think white audiences, who might not be familiar with her story, really understand her point of view at the end of the show," he says. "She was up against so many things in life, like not being able to go through that club's front door. I think we've forgotten what it was like back then, and it's inspiring to see how far we've come."

Since premiering at Penguin Rep and before coming to St. Luke's, the show has had many other productions, including successful runs at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey and the Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers. "We honed it at so many different places over the past 10 years, but we only did it four weeks at a time, so we sort of reworked it in dribs and drabs," says Brancato. "But each time we revisited the show, we reshaped it, approaching certain storylines differently, rewriting some scenes. And each theater was so giving to us."

Mounting the show at St. Luke's, where it plays in repertory with other shows, proved to be a bit of challenge for Brancato. "St. Luke's is the kind of place that pushes you to find creative solutions you might not have wanted to think about, " he says. "But my designers, Michael Schweikart and Jeff Croiter, got together to make this space work. I love that we can use the theater's side entrances, which lets the audience experience the show from different vantage points. And I also wanted audiences to feel like Bessie was in their laps. "

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