Showing again Friday, “One Night With Janis Joplin” first played at Arena Stage earlier this season, and Washington audiences responded enthusiastically and emotionally.
In addition to her theater role and performing with Big Brother and the Holding Company, she also headlines her own band, the Mary Bridget Davies Group.
Over the phone, Davies’ voice is a little scratchy, raw and throaty. She doesn’t have Joplin’s cackle, but she has the great lady’s warmth. She moves easily, telling Joplin’s story with anecdotes from her own life intertwined.
For example, Davies describes the teenage Joplin this way: “She was real skinny. She had acne. It was her face, you know? You just feel very vulnerable, very exposed. She listened to ‘race records,’ she hung out with boys. [The high school kids] threw pennies at her and called her a ‘whore.’ She was made to feel ugly, so she went internal and started painting.
“I can completely relate to her, because I have psoriasis [a chronic skin disorder],” she says. “We didn’t have straight glossy hair. She didn’t keep her mouth shut and, having the bad acne, she just felt ugly and was told she was.”
For her part, Davies says she was called “Spot the Wonder Dog” on the school bus.
“But it’s like that gave me ... it makes you become OK with [who you are],” she says. “I think that it helped her mature earlier.”
That maturity came through in her music. The musical show, as Davies describes it, packs a serious wallop. People come dressed up, she says. They sing along to the 24 songs, but this is not a cover band’s set. This is a very real piece of poignant, joyful musical theater, which is about art, artistry and Joplin’s experience of the blues.
“The blues is just a bad woman feeling good,” Davies says, so the show itself never gets super dark. The Janis character talks to the audience, and through these snippets gets into some of the woman’s internal struggles. The other character on stage is the “blues singer” Joplin idolized. Played by Sabrina Elayne Carten, who takes on the personas of Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin and others, not as they actually were but as they are understood and interpreted by the Janis Joplin character.
“But, it is a knock-down, drag-out concert experience,” Davies says. “I am wrecked by the end of the show. It is physically exhausting. It’s emotionally exhausting.”
And even though performing Joplin comes to Davies “really naturally,” she has to step away from her real life by mid-afternoon on a day she’s performing.
“One Night With Janis Joplin” first played at Arena Stage earlier this season. And Washington audiences responded enthusiastically and emotionally.
“I don’t know if this is because of the way the theater is,” Davies says. “We’re real close [to the audience], like I can see the whites of everyone’s eyes. The people are far closer to us [than at other venues]. The energy is way more even. They are giving back to us. The room is alive.
“I don’t know. A lot of the ,‘I saw Janis in blah blah’ came out of D.C. A lot of the personal stories came from Arena.”