Bessie Smith in Song and Story at Theatre Nova

By Daniel Skora

K Edmonds as Bessie Smith

When you’re the best, you’re often blessed by your fans with a title or a nickname. Nowhere is that more true than in the music business. James Brown is called the Godfather of Soul. Michael Jackson is the King of Pop, self-proclaimed, as the story goes, because Elvis had already laid claim to the title King of Rock ‘n Roll. Benny Goodman is the King of Swing, Aretha Franklin the Queen of Soul, Scott Joplin the King of Ragtime. The list goes on and on with enough musical royalty in American musical history to keep the peasants dancing in the streets for a long, long time.

Bessie Smith sang the blues. Her voice and stage presence were such that when she appeared at a club, she packed then in. Her recordings for Columbia set sales records. To honor her talent and her contributions to American music, she was given the title Empress of the Blues.

Theatre Nova is currently presenting Angelo Parra’s combination biography and cabaret, “The Devil’s Music – The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith”. K Edmonds plays Bessie with verve and passion in this not quite one woman show.  She’s assisted onstage by Brian Buckner who, besides being the show’s musical director, provides piano accompaniment to Edmonds’s vocals and contributes commentary and banter as the character Pickle.

Brian Buckner as Pickle and K Edmonds as Bessie Smith

Smith’s personal life could have provided the lyrics to the songs she sang. She had a stormy relationship with her husband, had many lovers, both male and female, during the course of her illustrious career, struggled with an alcohol addiction, and lost custody of her adopted son in a court battle with her husband. Between numbers Smith/Edmonds tells it all with an honest frankness.

K Edmonds

Edmonds does a fabulous job of interpreting a dozen or so of Smith’s songs, among them “Downhearted Blues”, St. Louis Blues”, and “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl”. She also nicely captures the brashness and swagger of Bessie’s onstage persona.

Pickle/Buckner provides a nice contrast to the blues-laden life and music of Bessie. With a winning smile and a feel good attitude, he adds pleasant vibes, overshadowing, however briefly, the sound of those rattling bones that resonate throughout the show like a prognosticator of impending doom.

“The Devil’s Music – The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” is a stellar directorial effort by Lynch Travis. The 70 minutes or so that the show clocks in at are a nicely crafted mix of song, story, humor, and history of the times. Set design is by Forrest Hejkal. Lighting design is by Daniel C. Walker, sound by Diane Hill. Costume designer is Haley Cook. Stage manager for the production is Michelle Resnick who is also responsible for props.

Edmonds and Buckner

The show runs through April 22nd. Tickets are available by calling the theatre’s box office at 734.635-8450. Contact or go online at for more information.  Theatre Nova is located at 410 W. Huron Street, a stone’s throw off the road in downtown Ann Arbor.


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