Preparing for WOODY SEZ with ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN

Had a great time at Arena Stage last night, seeing the extraordinary Mary Bridget Davies become the great white blues rocker, Janis Joplin who, unbelievably, died at age 27. The play, quite unlike an earlier musical play about Janis’ life and death, LOVE JANIS, is a total celebration of Janis’ art, her notions as artist, and most prominently, her influences. The evening, quite unlike the next musical in our lives coming around the corner at Theater J, WOODY SEZ, has no scenes per se. No dramatic moments. It’s an evening spoken in the performer’s voice, first person direct address, but there the similarities end. Or do they? It will be fascinating to continue thinking of this form of theater — the musical biography — and the choices made as to illuminating the life, the times, the dramas of the singer’s life, and the questions and emotions surrounding his or her death.

Putting this up now, so that students can respond to the Arena show, but it’s also a place setting for our own musical celebration to come in less than two weeks, just after the election, when Woody and his Corn Cob Quartet come rumbling and a rambling into town. Much more on that soon!

16 thoughts on “Preparing for WOODY SEZ with ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN

  1. Mary Bridget Davies pulled out all the stops last night during “One Night with Janis Joplin.” She stated after the play that the role is impossible to “phone in” — the raw emotion evident in her singing portrayed Joplin’s personal demons even better than scenes and dialogue could have.

    The performance surprised me; I expected to see more of a traditional play with scenes from Joplin’s childhood and life rather than direct, first-person address to the audience. I felt like I was experiencing a more deeply personal, intimate version of a rock concert in which Joplin came back to life to share some of her stories with the audience and celebrate her music. The performance was a marked departure from the plays the class has seen so far, which have usually revolved around interpersonal conflict and war.

    One connection which may be drawn between the performance and previous ones, however, is the presence of both malignant and benevolent ghosts as well as the presence of loneliness. The soul singer is Joplin’s alter-ego, sometimes appearing in more of a ghostly form to sing spiritual ballads and serve as her conscience. This reminded me of some of the ghosts in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, who return to advise the still-living characters on what course of action to pursue. Joplin’s music doesn’t speak to the violent conflict of war, but it embodies the aching loneliness that comes in the aftermath of abandonment. She described the blues as always wanting something or someone to fill the void of loneliness. Again, I was reminded of Bengal Tiger; an abandoned soldier consumed by loneliness and self-loathing commits suicide, and Joplin dies a tragic young death due to a drug overdose. They both turn their pain on themselves.

    The singing performances were absolutely incredible and gave me chills. I have no idea how Davies manages to sing with such power every night, and my favorite scene was definitely the joint performance between Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. It was one of the few times when the singers’ very distinct voices worked together in a duet.

    I also enjoyed hearing the reactions from the older audience members who remembered Joplin’s performances at Woodstock and other venues – they felt that brought back to life.

    • This insight is really interesting; I was attempting to make a thematic connection between this play and a previous play we have seen. I kept trying to compare it with the only artist oriented play we have seen, “Body Awareness.” There were not really a lot of overlap between the two plays and their subject matter concerning “artists”. It made me regard all the plays we have seen not only in the three themes of the play, but in other elements as well, such as the “hauntings” in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”, and I would even say “Black Watch”, “Invisible Man” and “Our Class” as well.

  2. One night with Janis Joplin was an outstanding production that left me exhausted by the end. The production fully involved the audience and left nothing to be desired. The postproduction discussion explained a lot of the connections and allowed audience members to connect with the actors and their roles in the production. It was a little odd as a person of the younger generation to experience the production. Most of the older audience members had an actual experience of Janis Joplin in real life, when she had died twenty years before I was even born. I sincerely enjoyed being a part of the experience though and I loved how much the older audience members got involved.
    During the postproduction discussion I learned a lot more about the life of Janis Joplin and how the characters embodied the persona of their role so well. Audience members declared Mary Bridget Davies perfectly personified Janis Joplin and I feel inclined to agree whole-heartedly. I really enjoyed the parts of the production when Janis would stop to discuss her childhood and her feelings and emotions. It was very heartbreaking to hear about the childhood Janis had, however it was pleasant to hear about her loving parents and siblings. I loved how throughout the production when she talked about her paintings the art pieces would appear on the backdrop through the projector. I am curious if the projections were the actual art pieces of Janis though. At first I was short on words on how to connect this production with the many others that I have seen in DC, but I soon realized it was the theme of pain and loneliness that connected a lot of the productions. A lot of productions use alter egos and ghosts of the characters to express their subconscious. The use of the blues singer allowed for the audience to see the inside and out of Janis, which added a sincere depth to the production.
    Overall, I have never experienced a production as energetic and welcoming as One Night with Janis Joplin and I am very happy that I could be a part of the experience.

  3. “One Night with Janis Joplin” was like nothing I have ever seen before; a play that felt more like a concert, with an audience that seemed to truly connect with the actors. I found it striking the extent to which the audience felt Mary Bridget Davies come alive as Janis Joplin, echoing her sound and persona in an eerily realistic way. Although I found it harder to connect than the average audience member with the music and story of the play, I was still struck by the experience of the performance.

    Having only heard a few of Joplin’s songs before the play and knowing only basic background information about her life, I was intrigued by the way the play engaged me in Joplin’s life through her music and the music of others she found inspiring. I thought the story was really told through the blues singer, who, as discussed in the post-show discussion, acted as Joplin’s either alter-ego or inner conscience. This was the element that made the performance seem more like a play and less like a concert, as it allowed Joplin to speak to the audience about herself and then have another character help tell her story.

    Although this was a big departure from the performances we have seen so far this semester, I did still find a connection to those other plays. In “One Night with Janis Joplin” the main character, Joplin, experiences the brutalities of living in such a harsh world and is shaped by these traumatic moments. She may not have fought in a war or lived through genocide but she struggled in her high school years and was affected emotionally for the rest of her life. Just as we have seen soldiers with PTSD come back to their normal lives as changed people, we too saw Joplin in her prime, performing on stage, demonstrating the emotions that emerged from her experiences being bullied and feeling a great sense of loneliness in her life.

    It was fun to have a chance to see a play about such an iconic legend. The powerful voice of Davies coupled with the beautiful singing of Sabrina Elayne Carten really made the show for me. I also thought it was incredibly unique to have a play that wasn’t broken down into scenes but, fittingly, songs. It seemed to blend and flow just as a more typical play does, but with the added excitement of continuous engagement.

  4. Playing the title character of Janis Joplin, Mary Bridget Davies told the audience, “All that really matters are feelings, and that’s all songs are,” and as a part of the audience last Thursday night, I felt Janis’ story right alongside her. Every small detail of the experience of One Night with Janis Joplin was aimed at allowing the viewer to go on a journey with the title character. Even before the play began, the low-lit eclectic mix of lamps on the stage, billowing fabric intertwined with the twinkle-lights, and coziness of overlapping Persian rugs eased the expectant viewer into a nostalgic anticipation of the kind of decades-old music that can’t help but envelop the listener. A theme focused on feelings was present throughout the play. With this theme also followed tones of a natural narcissism in art, an expression of the artist’s inner moods and musings. Much of what we feel (especially as a viewer of the play) is reactionary, and therefore has roots in some external event or person, but Janis turned the tables on this type of thought. When discussing love letters written to her beau, and her statement, “You’re the one,” she reminded herself and the audience that “the one” isn’t someone else; she’s the center of her world. One might call this gross self-absorption, but in a way Janis makes it a healthy perspective.
    Janis also teaches the audience that painful feelings can’t be avoided, “You get the blues when you’re not even looking.” They’re organic; we need them, and some people embrace the somber, “People like their blues singers miserable, and they like their blues singers to die.” She also addresses the contrast of 1950’s and 1960’s girl bands that sing about heartbreak in a light-hearted way, and the gravitas in real blues. The experience of One Night with Janis Joplin moves through a spectrum of emotions that is as varied as the types of music to which Janice’s mother is said to have introduced her, and from the play, I got a taste of the complexity that made up the artist, Janis Joplin.

  5. The play last Thursday, One Night with Janis Joplin, was absolutely phenomenal. I was amazed by the amount of energy and excitement that filled the room during the entire show and I was completely captivated by Janis who was played by Mary Bridget Davies. The entire production introduced a new dimension of theater and I found great pleasure exploring the life of a ‘Rock and Roll’ superstar Janis Joplin.

    One aspect of the play that I found extremely enjoyable was the fact that the playwright decided to frame the play in light of Janis and highlight all of the positive aspects of her life. During the post-discussion, Davies highlighted the difference between this play and ‘Love Janis’ which exhibits a completely different perspective on her life and influence. In my opinion, focusing the play on Janis’ life and the joy she created through song, was a great strategy that brought the audience together to celebrate the life of a talented, strong woman.

    Another aspect of ‘One Night with Janis Joplin’ that I thoroughly enjoyed was the concert set-up and the beyond impressive acting of Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin. While sitting in the audience I felt as though I had walked back in time to a 60s concert featuring Janis Joplin and other hit stars during that time. The audience was enthusiastic. People moved to the rhythm and words. And the voice and song of Janis was absolutely breathtaking. Every note and scream seemed so real. I was captivated by her resemblance, voice, personality, and movement that all seemed to resemble every perception I had of Janis Joplin.

    By casting the play through the creative, concert-like setting, the audience was brought to life and I think that really completed the play as a whole. As I sit back and reflect on the reaction of the audience, it is interesting to imagine the same play with a lifeless audience. Had the viewers refrained from dancing/singing, the play would have been a completely different production. Regardless, the play was exceptionally well preformed and full of life.

  6. “One Night with Janis Joplin” was not just a play—it was an experience. Calling this production a play does not do it justice. It was a combination of storytelling and performances that explain more of what made Janis Joplin who she was as an artist than just merely telling about her life and music.
    Although there was not a lot of “acting” in the traditional sense, the various monologues in between the songs where Janis is talking about the experiences, people, and music that shaped her—the good and the bad—shows how she developed as an artist and person. It touched on her loneliness, like “the blues”, and her high points, like performing for an audience.
    I really enjoyed this production, to say the least. The lighting and staging of the play gave it both an intimate and concert feeling. At times when it was just Janis speaking about her emotions and memories, it felt like you were just sitting there in a room listening to her. At other times when she is performing, it felt like you were at a concert with hundreds of other people.
    Mary Bridget Davies and Sabrina Elayne Carten’s performances were unbelievable. As I am not familiar with Janis Joplin’s or the various blues artists’ music that were portrayed, I was not sure how authentic the pieces were, but the numerous reactions from the audience reaffirmed how realistic their portrayals were. And even if they had not been, it would not have mattered. The energy and pure talent of both made the production a great success.

  7. As someone who knows little about Janis Joplin’s life or work, I still thoroughly enjoyed myself at the show, “One Night With Janis Joplin.” It was hard to categorize the production – was it a musical? a cover concert? It was some magical blend of categories full of talented singers and musicians that really was fulfilling to watch.

    I think the thing that most resonated with me was not watching the play but watching the audience’s response to the play. I have never been a musical theatre production where audience members stood up, and danced, so clearly loving the music of a production. This production was very unique in the way it allowed older people to reflect on music they loved when they were young. I actually got very emotional looking around at the audience during “Piece of My Heart,” one of Janis’ hits that I had heard before. Seeing women stand up in their chairs to dance and mouth along all the lyrics made me think about all the contemporary bands and singers that I love, and how I would feel if one of them had such an untimely and tragic death and over forty years later, I was given the opportunity to see an actress who emulated them so well that it took me back to my love of them. It would really be a powerful experience for me. Seeing a production that allowed older generations to go back to a time when they were around my age, going to rock concerts and listening to talented musicians like I do, allowed me to feed off of their joy and love of Janis that has lasted all these years. The talkback was another very powerful reflection of that, as there was a man who had met Janis at Woodstock and a couple that had been married for many years whose first date was at a Janis Joplin concert.

    Having just learned so much about Janis’ spirit and her unending passion for music and performance, the production and how much it meant to her longtime fans was in a way another furthering of her spirit. That is what is so incredible about music recordings is they are something so deeply personal for an artist that take on a whole other life in the way they are recieieved and how they affect people. The cast members and band in this production and the audience’s reception of them is further proof that Janis Joplin’s music had a strong effect on people and it will continue to long outlive her.

  8. Finally… a happy play! “One night with Janis Joplin” was an experience like no other. The entire cast kept the audience fully engaged and filled with excitement. I truly felt as if I was at a concert! As one who was not familiar with the work of Janis Joplin before the play, actress Mary Bridget Davies sure had me fooled. It was not until after the play that I really allowed myself to come to the realization that this was a play production. Now that I am a bit more knowledgeable of Janis Joplin as an artist, I can genuinely say Davies embodied Janis Joplin to a T.

    One of the things I appreciated most during this play experience is that no matter how many different generations were in the audience, by the end of the night you were a Janis Joplin fan! Being a part of the younger generation in the audience, it was moving to see seasoned fans go back to their youth as songs were being performed.

    Another aspect of the play that I enjoyed was the brief looks into Janis’s life between songs. Through brief life stories and reminisces, audience members were able to make connections with Janis Joplin the artist and the individual. This was particularly helpful for audience members, such as myself, who may not have been as familiar with Janis Joplin before the production.

    Overall, this play experience was a great one! If the opportunity comes, I would definitely like to see the play “Love Janis”, so I can get a deeper understanding of Janis’s personal life and struggles. By and large, amazing concert!

  9. “One night with Janis Joplin” was a mind-blowing and entertaining exposure. I wasn’t sure if “One night with Janis Joplin” was a musical, concert, or a play. But it does not matter because I loved it! I loved how the actors and the band interacted with the audience. I thought the interaction made atmosphere more lively and unified the audience despite the age difference.

    I thought Mary Bridget Davies who played Janis Joplin successfully expressed deeper hidden personal emotions, “soul” of Janis Joplin with singing. Personally, I tried to be attentive to the lyrics but I thought it was more difficult than listening to regular lines in the play. But the narration between the songs, the lighting effect, and band spirit set the appropriate mood to help the audience better understand the songs.

    The Blues Singer in the play brought more dynamic to the overall performance, as a role model and a friend of Janis. When Janis Joplin and the Blues Singer singing together in harmony, the energy and power of the stage multiplied especially the song before the intermission. But I like the fact that “One night with Janis Joplin” focused on Janis Joplin unlike the previous play “Our Class”, which focused on ten different characters, because I was able to focus on Janis more and gave more variety to my total theatre experience. Also, this play was a complete turnover compared to the last five plays we saw. The actors sang on couple of the plays such as the “Black Watch” and the “Invisible Man” but not to this extent.

    Overall, “One night with Janis Joplin” was a combination of talent, unity, and energy and a performance that will remind us Janis Joplin and her work.

  10. Watching One night with Janis Joplin was a unique and fantastic theatre experience for me. When I walked into the theatre, I was expecting to see a play that would describe Janis Joplin’s life in scenes from different periods of her life, and actors would act out these scenes in the form of conversation. I was surprised that the play was structured into a form of concert and used flashbacks, narrated by Janis, to portray the remarkable moments in her music career. This form increased the intimacy between the actors on stage and the audiences, and brought Janis to life. I can imagine how important and symbolic this show can be for people who were in Janis’s concerts before. The actors were very devoted and energetic, and did an amazing job. The singers and the band were excellent, and there was a strong and charming connection between the singers and the band. Also, I really liked the lighting effects of this show. They helped to bring Janis’s concert to life and build the connection with the audiences, and cooperated very well with the music and the storyline. When everyone got up out of his/her seat and danced to Janis’s music, I looked around the theatre. People of all ages were dancing and clapping to the beat. I was amazed and touched by the power of music, theater, and memory.

    The show was full of surprises and excitement. After the show, the discussion helped me to know Janis Joplin’s life and the actors better. It was very sad to know that Janis had a very unhappy high school experience. She tried very hard to be recognized by the outside world and had a lot of frustration. Then, she realized that life was about the carrot that one can never touch, and one should never worry about everything she does. Mary, starred as Janis Joplin, shared that Janis’s songs are feelings. When she was portraying Janis, she needed to draw a lot from her personal awfulness to have those feelings, and then sing the songs. The discussion helped me to understand what an actor needed to do to bring a character to life. I loved this theatre experience and was touched by the energy of both the actors and the audiences.

  11. One Night With Janice Joplin is visually straightforward and splendid. The lighting, the projections of art, the costumes—all were used sparingly but with great effect and perfect timing. The show is an auditory pleasure, and a soul nourishing bit of history and fun for any true music lover. This play was more of a celebration of Janice Joplin’s life and musical accomplishments rather than a somber reflection on her personal struggles and tragic death. The performance is a delightful blend of biography, theater and rock n’ soul concert. The performers were so engaging that the audience was regularly moved to clap, cheer, hoot, holler and even stand and dance.
    All of the singers and band members on the stage were talented and energetic. Sabrina Carten did a brilliant job portraying and executing the singing and fashion styles of a range of blues singers from Porgy n’ Bess to Aretha Franklin. Her character enhanced the performance dramatically. Her clear resonance was a lovely foil to the rock and rasp of Davies. Also, her singing helped to provide a biographic playlist that shed further insight into the soul of Joplin than the diary entries and memories could have alone. Mary Bridget Davies gave a sincere embodiment of Janice Joplin. Her singing was smoky and heartfelt, and interspersed with surprising insights into the thinking and memories of Joplin. This show provided an intimate look at the singer in a format that felt as though she were at a small gig. This direct address to the audience is part of what made the show so engaging for the audience, as it established a connection that felt personal at times and simply enjoyable at others. This show is truly a treat.

    • Yes, it definitely felt like we were at a gig with Janis. Everyone was enjoying it so much, it was beautiful to watch and be part of. I agree with you, Sabrina Carten added greatly to the play and to the story of Janis. It was a great mix of folks and music.

  12. Loved it! Loved it! Loved it! I have seen musicals before but never something like this, it was absolutely amazing!

    As sad as it is for me to say this, I had never heard of Janis Joplin until this past Thursday. It took only one night with her to fall in love not only with her music, but also with her story. The play/musical/concert did more than simply act out the life of Janis, it really made each one of the attendees believe that we were indeed spending one night with her. The story of Janis Joplin told by her music, and by each one of her songs from Little Girl Blue to I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven.

    Mary Bridget Davies was the sheer image of Janis Joplin. The body language, the attitude, and the voice, it was all there. There was a scene in the play that really hit home for me and that was when Janis spoke about the way her mother influenced her love for music by putting records on full blast while doing chores around the house. My mom did the exact same thing. It is such a happy and intimate memory that only those who have experienced it can feel it; needless to say, I knew exactly where Janis was coming from.

    My favorite part of the night? The connection between the stage and the audience. People of all ages were singing and dancing to Janis’ famous songs such as Maybe and Kozmic Blues. It was definitely the highlight of my week. Loved the play, they talk back with the actors, and the celebration of the Queen of Rock n’ Roll.

    • I agree the connection between the stage and the audience made the play very special. Do you think some people had seen that play before, or were told what to do before hand? I felt kind of like I was the only person in the room who didn’t know the answers to her audience questions. That and the use of keychain lighters at the end were really well coordinated (the bar must have helped). I think its great that you could relate to the story about her mom. Those stories really did make the play seem more relatable (even though I was never really inspired by my mom’s own taste in music). Lastly, great comment, I love your enthusiasm!

  13. One Night with Janis is exactly what it sounds like—a night with Janis Joplin. The play attempts to discover what Janis really thought of her own life, through an exploration of the meaning behind her music and the inspiration for her soul/rock mix. Although Janis was brought back to life by the talented actress portraying her, the Blues Singer stole the show for me. Janis’ inspiration became my inspiration as the show progressed. The costumes, lighting, live music, and audience interaction really made the play seem less like a play, and more like a party.
    There’s something inherently sad about the play however. Even though Janis Joplin comes off as a confident and comfortable woman, the play alludes to a damaged and lonely woman underneath. When Janis talked and sang about loneliness, the audience clearly empathized. Explaining her story as a middle-class girl from Texas gave Janis Joplin an extra layer I had never considered before. Her inspiration drawn from various blues singers across the decades brought an even deeper level of understanding. While the Blues Singer had very little lines, her incredible voice and powerful stage presence had the audience inspired as well. The only times when the connection between the actors and the audience was broken, for me at least, was when she mentioned things like “You wanna hear a new song? We’ll play it for the first time tonight.” At those points, I was briefly reminded that Janis was really Mary and the entire play is a pleasant way to pretend. Were those lines referencing time eliminated, the play could have served as a vehicle for the personal words of wisdom, not just a resurrection of an icon.

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