Jennifer Holliday, who famously belted her way through Dreamgirls, will play another strong-lunged singer in Off-Broadway's Downhearted Blues - The Life and Music of Bessie Smith. The show, penned by Holliday herself and feature eight Smith songs, will play Jan. 12-28 at The Chelsea Playhouse.
Donna Drake will direct the Illyria Theatre production, which also features Anslem Richardson as Smith's companion, Richard Morgan and David Ojalvo as record producer, Frank Morgan.
Downhearted Blues had a curious genesis. In mid-December, the Illyria Theatre announced it would stage a rare revival of Edward Albee's early play The Death of Bessie Smith at La MaMa, Jan. 4-21. A couple weeks later that venture was abruptly canceled. In Albee's 1959 work, Smith—who, reportedly, bled to death after a Memphis car accident because the city's white-only hospitals refused to admit her—never appears. Instead, the central figure is an embittered nurse. It was Illyria's vision to incorporate the character of Smith, played by Holliday, into the play, with the actress singing several songs made famous by the blues singer.
Albee, who in the past has been sensitive about the least alteration to his plays, was initially supportive of the project, an Illyria spokesman told Playbill On-Line. However, as the show progressed, artistic differences arose between the company and the playwright, resulting in the indefinite postponement of the production. All was not lost, though. Holliday revealed that she had in her drawer a Bessie Smith script of her own. Illyria switched gears, and soon the company was preparing a production of Downhearted Blues.
Tickets are $30. The Chelsea Playhouse is located at 125 W. 22nd Street. For more information, call (212) 561-9553. — By Robert Simonson