The author talks about writing, his ties to the region and literacy advocacy.
Tapping into all of Janis Joplin’s raw emotion and full-throated anguish, Mary Bridget Davies stars as the iconic rocker who overdosed at age 27. Sabrina Elayne Carten co-stars, performing the work of the legendary blues singers who influenced Joplin, including Odetta, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. Between tunes, the audience gets a glimpse of Joplin’s Texas childhood and 1960s youth.
- Sabrina Elayne Carten Singer, "One Night With Janis Joplin" at the Arena Stage
- Mary Bridget Davies Performer, "One Night with Janis Joplin"
“One Night with Janis Joplin” Trailer
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHow do you pay tribute to a legendary and tragic singer like Janis Joplin? A play about her life and the music that influenced her or maybe a musical featuring the hit she made famous. What about both? Playing Janis Joplin, Mary Bridget Davies taps into all the emotion and whisky-voiced anguish of the rocker who overdosed at age 27. And the iconic blues singers who influenced Joplin are here too: Odetta, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBetween tunes, the audience gets a glimpse of Janis Joplin's Texas childhood and her rise to stardom. Joining us in studio to discuss this production is Mary Bridget Davies. She's a singer and actress starring in the musical "One Night with Janis Joplin" at the Arena Stage -- I said studio theater earlier, I must be losing my mind.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMary Bridget Davies, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. MARY BRIDGET DAVIESThank you for having me.
NNAMDIEspecially because I actually went to Arena Stage to see the production and have plans on sneaking back in again. Also in studio with us is Sabrina Elayne Carten. She's a singer and actor in the same production, performing in the roles of several legendary blues singers, including Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. Sabrina Elayne Carten, thank you for joining us.
MS. SABRINA ELAYNE CARTENThank you.
NNAMDI"One Night with Janis Joplin" is at the Arena Stage through Nov. 4, so you still have the opportunity to see it. Mary, the show is difficult to classify. How would you describe it for our audience?
DAVIESIt is actually one night with Janis Joplin. So it -- the format is more like if you were to go see an artist live in kind of like more of a cabaret-esque environment where they come out, they do a huge number and they tell you a little story, do another number, you know, give you a little insight, back and forth with the audience, have your friends come up, you know? So it is a theater piece. We don't want people, you know, standing up and screaming the whole time like a concert. But...
NNAMDIThough it is tempting.
DAVIESBut there is -- yeah. But there are times for it, and we definitely encourage it when it comes.
NNAMDIYou've both been with the show in Portland, Ore., and then the Cleveland Play House. What kind of reaction has the show gotten, and is it different in different places, Sabrina?
CARTENI think the D.C. audience has been amazing. The reactions that we've gotten here, the love that we've gotten from the audiences here...
NNAMDIWoo, woo, woo.
CARTEN...yeah, has been really wonderful. I would say, of the three places -- because I was able to start with the show in the very beginning in Portland and watched it through its transformations and slight changes to script, musical choices -- it's perfect now here in D.C. And the energy, the ride of the show right now, from the very beginning, it grabs you and it holds you until the very end.
NNAMDIYour observation's about the same thing, Mary.
DAVIESAbsolutely. I was just nodding my head in agreement with everything she just said.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, if you'd like to offer your own observations of "One Night with Janis Joplin," if you've seen it or if you have questions. 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. The audience at the performance that I went to starts out like a regular theater audience, a little shy.
NNAMDIBut after a while, they were clapping. They were singing along. How do you transform the audience from your regular theater audience into a concert audience?
DAVIESI think it's just allowing them, like through our performances and our energy, letting them know that it's OK to come along with us. And the way that the show is built, it -- as the show goes along, the audience can see there's a lot of space for them to become part of the show and to really enjoy it and let their hair down. But, yeah, it's on us to get them to see that.
NNAMDIYeah, because we started out kind of saying, OK, we're at the theater. We have to, like, behave ourselves here. Then we found ourselves -- and when it got to "Spirit in the Dark," by then we were -- like you pulled us in and made us a part of the performance. Is that how it usually happens?
CARTENYeah. That is how it usually happens. It's really wonderful the way that the music is set up and the show is set up. You kind of -- I can feel the audience in the beginning right after "Tell Mama." You know, they're ready to clap. And by the time she -- Mary gets to "Piece of my Heart," they're losing their minds by then, and then they feel a little restrained again. But by the time we get to "Spirit in the Dark," everybody is on their feet, and it's a good time.
NNAMDII used to study to "Tell Mama" when I was in college, but that's another story. I can't study to loud music anymore. I don't know why.
DAVIESOh, that's funny.
NNAMDIMary, you were always inspired by Janis Joplin. You even dressed as her for Halloween once. What was it about Joplin and her music that resonated with you?
DAVIESI would have to say, now that I've thought about it, just the wild abandon that she had. And, you know, being a female and growing up, and you're supposed to look just so and talk just so and act just so. And she didn't do any of those things, and she really just burst. She was -- yeah, she's like a -- just -- she just exploded. Whether it was her music or if it was in her interviews or whatever, she just was like this bright light that just was like -- I was like, I want that. How do you do that? I connected with that.
NNAMDIYour childhood sounds a little like Joplin's. Can you talk a little bit about the role of music in your life growing up?
DAVIESOh, yeah. We had a really fun childhood, musically, and I'm the only one that really took it away as -- out of the -- my siblings. But all very big appreciators, the best record collection in town, I'd like to say. My father before -- you know, I was born with a musician, you know, and a front man, so I'm sure I got some of that from him. But my mother was the one who sang around the house all the time.
DAVIESAnd she actually sang "Summertime" to us, but the Joplin version, you know, and stuff. And we -- I knew that song forever. And there's a part in the show when Sabrina's singing, you know, the chorus from "Summertime," and I'm talking about how my mother really taught me. And I'm like, wow, I'm just telling the truth right here, you know?
DAVIESSo that's cool.
NNAMDIWell, you talked about "Summertime," and I think we have that clip of you doing "Summertime" in the show, and our listeners would love to hear it right now.
DAVIESSummertime, time, time. Hon', the living's easy. Fish are jumping out. And the cotton, Lord, the cotton's high, so high. Your daddy's rich, and your ma, she's so good-looking, baby. But I think she's looking good now. Hush, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby.
NNAMDIMary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin in "One Night with Janis Joplin" at the Arena Stage. Isn't that moving? She joins us in studio, along with Sabrina Elayne Carten, who is in the same production, performing in the roles of several legendary blues singers, including Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. Sabrina, as I mentioned, you perform as not one, but several legendary blues singers. Can you talk a little bit about your role in the show?
CARTENWell, I feel like my role in the show, the blues singer is Janis' alter ego. She is the women that influenced Janis musically, the women she looked up to, the women that were her inspiration. When she listened to Bessie Smith records, that music, that style, changed her and gave her the dream that this will be something she would be ready to do. This is for her. And getting a chance to sing these iconic women is amazing every night, and every night is a little different. Sometimes the music can touch you a different way, and, you know, you find revelations within the music every night.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Are you a fan of Janis Joplin? Or what about Janis Joplin's life would you want to see memorialized? 800-433-8850. And since we're talking about all of the singers that Sabrina portrays, which iconic female blues singers -- Bessie Smith, Etta James, Nina Simone -- do you admire? 800-433-8850. How do you prepare for what is, in fact, several roles?
CARTENWell, the first thing I did was a lot of research on these women as individuals and where they fit in in the timeline of the musical period because their lives -- your life always affects your music, especially as a singer. And to see what the political atmosphere was, their society's atmosphere, to find out where the music touched them and their souls, to really understand their stylings, their vocal delivery and try to incorporate that into my own voice because we're not trying to do imitations of all these wonderful women. We...
NNAMDIYou're doing interpretations.
CARTENWe're doing interpretations, but definitely using -- you want to pay tribute to them without impersonating them. So you have to be true to the stylings of the period.
NNAMDIAnd you are. Mary Bridget, Janis Joplin's brother, Michael, was crucial in making this show happen, and he's seen the show apparently countless times. What's it been like having someone who knew her so well supporting this?
DAVIESThe funny thing about the Joplin family is they're very sweet and demure and loving. They're not this imposing presence. You know, they'll show up in the theater while we're rehearsing, and they're there. But they don't come barging in. And I'm Janis -- you know, they're very supportive. And it's humbling to get their seal of approval because if there was anyone who's ever going to be a critic, you know, it would be her siblings.
DAVIESYou always protect your family the most no matter what. And then their sister happens to be a legend, so, you know, getting that approval is really -- it's really nice. And they treat us like friends, like family, you know. It's really beautiful.
NNAMDIBecause you're not just singing. You're also performing as an actor, Janis Joplin.
NNAMDIAnd Michael Joplin says that, when you make a certain gesture, the way you raise your eyebrows, he sees Janis. How hard did you have to work on capturing her in that way?
DAVIESIt was just kind of by accident because I watched her documentaries and footage and stuff so much as a kid that, you know, when you're singing into a mirror, you know, in a hairbrush, you know? And usually, it's just all the things that she would do on stage, but then there is all these documentary and footage and shoots, and she was just really kind of impish. She has a really cute, like, you know...
NNAMDIThat comes across...
NNAMDI...and I've never seen her personally.
DAVIESRight. And, I mean, you know, and it just came across. And, of course, she had a really good stern brow, and she can pull it out. And I did it, and I had no idea that it was working 'cause that's the first time I heard. When Michael said that, I was like, wow.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Cap in Annapolis, Md. Cap, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAPAll I got to say is wow. You really nail it. Back in the day, I was a degenerative being in San Francisco, you know, back in the '60s, and I remember seeing Janis in her entourage traipsing down 8th Street. And I saw her perform in the old Filmore Auditorium on Filmore Street a number of times. And I'll tell you, you get her nailed.
DAVIESWow. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIWell, can you talk a little bit about how you prepare to become Janis Joplin six nights a week both physically and emotionally? Because it's my understanding that you conserve all of your energy for this.
DAVIESYeah. I definitely try to do as much as I can to conserve energy. Like, I'll workout and stuff to get the body awake because you have to be 100 percent awake to do this show.
NNAMDIA lot of energy.
DAVIESA lot of energy, you know? And to get that energy going in the show, you got to get it going earlier in the day. But, yeah, I try not to, you know, talk on the phone for hours and that, you know, just try to conserve it that way. But the transformation really -- it kind of comes early in the day. You just have to get into a mindset.
DAVIESAnd it's just -- she had so much to say and so much passion behind what she did that you have to start really investing emotionally pretty early in the day. And you take every personal experience you have to draw from. You take from your life and add it into the pot to make it real.
NNAMDIMary Bridget Davies, she plays Janis Joplin in the musical "One Night with Janis Joplin" at Arena Stage. She joins us in studio, along with Sabrina Elayne Carten, who performs in the roles of several legendary blues singers. We mentioned Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. This show is a great tribute to Joplin's music and her life, but it also glosses over the darker side of her life, including her death from a heroine overdose at age 27. What was the idea behind leaving that very big part of her life out? And I'll start with you this time, Sabrina. What do you feel about that?
CARTENWell, it's very difficult when you start talking about wonderful artists in music and art and various fine arts forms. And people have a tendency to try to dwell on their dark side, their issues, the problems they were having. And I don't think -- well, I don't believe, and it's certainly not true that her heroine addiction and overdose negate the incredible musical influence that she has been overall.
CARTENI mean -- and if you dwell on that, then you just -- it becomes tabloid fodder, and it's not -- that is not what this show is about. It is really celebrating who she was as a woman, who she was as a musical icon and who she still is as a musical icon.
NNAMDIBecause, Mary Bridget, in the final analysis, what was most important about Janis Joplin was her music and what she contributed to us in that way.
NNAMDIOn, therefore, to Emmanuel in Northwest Washington. Emmanuel, your turn.
EMMANUELHey, Kojo. How are you doing today?
NNAMDIThank you. I'm well.
EMMANUELOK. Last week, I had a free night -- I think it was last week or week before, I was either going to go to the Nationals game, or I was going to go to Arena Stage. I wind up going to Arena Stage. I knew nothing about Janis Joplin. I went to that play. And the young lady who actually played Janis Joplin, I didn't know anything about her. Of course, I was just going for a night of entertainment. And you did a just great job, a lot of energy. I was just surprised that you can even do that show multiple times with the energy you have to be putting in it.
EMMANUELSo I just want to applaud you. You're from Cleveland. Is that right?
EMMANUELI read your bio a little bit, and, again, you just did a great job. The other young lady, you did, too, but, of course, you know, you've been forefront. I was the young man in the front audience. I had a bowtie on, African-American gentleman, and I...
NNAMDIAre you trying to get a date here?
EMMANUELSay what? No, no, it was just...
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
EMMANUELNo, it was just a great show. And do you have any other material? And what type of music do you sing primarily?
DAVIESOh, yeah, actually, I do. I just released an album in February, and it's a blues- and soul-based album, but it's primarily original. There's 10 tracks, and seven of them are mine, and three of them are covers that are completely nothing like the original. But, yeah, just my name, marybridgetdavies.com. You can find all that good stuff.
NNAMDIEmmanuel, thank you so much for your call. Sabrina, who was your biggest inspiration?
CARTENMy biggest musical inspiration was my mom, actually. My mother was a classically trained singer, who's sang lots of concerts around the tri-state area. And I guess my first voice lessons were with her at home, talking about the breath...
CARTEN...breathing and consonants and enunciate your words and make sure people can understand you. And through her, listening in to classical music mostly in the house, I really -- Leontyne Price was an incredible icon to me, Grace Bumbry. But then I got a chance to listen to Diana Ross and Chaka Khan and, you know, and sit and listen to them and stand in the mirror and sing into my hairbrush and dream about being on stage.
NNAMDIWell, that dream has certainly come true because what you are about to hear is Sabrina Elayne Carten performing Aretha Franklin's "Spirit in the Dark."
NNAMDIShe's (unintelligible). She's joined by Mary Bridget Davies as Janis.
NNAMDISabrina, it's my understanding that with this production, you had a lot of freedom to explore and to interpret.
CARTENWe certainly did.
CARTENWhen we got to Portland, Ore., where we started, we came into a basic framework. The script was basically written. And on a board were about 50 different song selections, 25 numbers in about each act. So, of course, we got a chance to move things around, drop a lot of things, add some different ones, and we got a chance to basically take the music and make it our own.
CARTENTo take "Spirit in the Dark," for example, and have that whole instrumental solo breakdown and the girls sing something and then have Janis come out and show everybody that she has the spirit, too, so that was great.
NNAMDIAnd it all works. Where will the show go next, Mary Bridget?
DAVIESWe have no idea.
NNAMDIWell, what do you think, Sabrina?
CARTENWell, I'm hoping it goes to New York.
CARTENSo we can win our Tonys.
NNAMDIOne thing is for sure -- and I agree its not going to be sitting on a shelf any place...
NNAMDI...because if you see the energy of the show and if you feel the power and you see the talent that's exhibited in this show, you'll know it's going some place. A lot of it comes from Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin at Arena Stage. Mary Bridget, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
DAVIESThank you. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDISabrina Elayne Carten plays the roles of several legendary blues singers, including Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. Sabrina, thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.
CARTENThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo explores how much input the public should have in public art projects and how that squares with the visions of the artists who do the work.
The Arlington County Board halted two long-planned, but long-controversial streetcar projects, saying voters had spoken this month against moving forward. We examine the implications of the decision.
Kojo talks with James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock about how he's using heritage foods to revive and redefine country cooking.