Janis Joplin, Older and Wiser at Arena Stage
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.
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.”