Showing again Friday, “One Night With Janis Joplin” first played at Arena Stage earlier this season, and Washington audiences responded enthusiastically and emotionally.
If you’re looking for a dark, heartbreaking tale about a talented young woman sacrificed too young to a hardcore junk habit, “One Night With Janis Joplin,” which is scheduled to return to Arena Stage on Friday, will not be that show.
First of all, Mary Bridget Davies, the Cleveland native who portrays the late rock and blues singer, explains that Joplin wasn’t a classic junkie.
She was a bit heartbroken. Her guy had stood her up. Joplin was upset and coping as an addict does, but “she wasn’t out to kill herself,” Davies says. In fact, Davies says, Joplin had a hair appointment scheduled for the week after she died.
At 26, Joplin referred to herself as a corporation. People relied on her to make a living and feed their families. Her art, her voice was changing, deepening, developing.
“She was just getting into who she was,” Davies tells CQ Roll Call. “She was one of those people who had so much inside of her.”
Davies says she understands the woman she has been playing for years now on stage. She has toured with Joplin’s first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. She calls them her “musical uncles.” She describes Joplin as a woman with a lightning quick wit who thrived on wordplay. Joplin, Davies says, had Mae West’s sense of humor and the unbridled passion of the very young and the ridiculously talented.
There was also a sense of urgency to the superstar, Davies says. Yet, when most people think of Joplin, they only consider her as a tragic snapshot — another tortured celebrity who flew a bit too close to the sun
“They really just dumb her down with this caricature,” Davies says. They miss the beatnik intellectual, the painter, the amateur blues historian who idolized musical greats such as Bessie Smith. In fact, she tells the story of how Joplin quietly paid for Bessie Smith’s headstone decades after the older blues singer died.
“She looked up to these women as trailblazers,” Davies says. “Janis hooked on to their strength,” she adds, and mirrored them in both their strengths and their weaknesses.
“She was a rebel outcast,” she continues, and the women of blues were her role models.
Today Davies — a blues singer in her own right, a former dance teacher and a trained improv performer — is just a few years older than Joplin was when she died. When Davies first secured an audition for the lead role in “Love, Janis” in 2005, she was a little younger than the late singer. The two women even kind of look alike.