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A Celebration Of Janis Joplin And All Her Swagger

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin and Sabrina Elayne Carten as Blues Singer in the Cleveland Play House production of <em>One Night with Janis Joplin</em>.
Janet Macoska
Arena Stage
Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin and Sabrina Elayne Carten as Blues Singer in the Cleveland Play House production of One Night with Janis Joplin.

The countercultural revolution of the 1960s may have been all about sex drugs and rock 'n' roll, but for one young Texas singer it was all about the blues. No one sang the blues quite like Janis Joplin.

Joplin was part of a legendary line-up of musicians at Woodstock in 1969: Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Joan Baez. She wasn't on the music scene long, though. Joplin died in 1970 of a drug overdose. She was only 27 years old, but in that short time her bluesy rasp helped define the music of a generation.

Her music takes center stage in a new play called One Night with Janis Joplin, playing at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Transforming Into Janis

Backstage before a recent performance, band members tuned their instruments. Backup singers did some trills. Six nights a week, Mary Bridget Davies, the star of the show, transforms herself into the Texan blues singer. The Cleveland native says it's a process that takes all day.

"You have to completely change your mindset. ... You're not first. She's first," she says. "She's the priority."

The cast of the Cleveland Play House production of <em>One Night with Janis Joplin</em>. Over a dozen singers and band members come together to celebrate the queen of rock 'n' roll.
Janet Macoska / Arena Stage
Arena Stage
The cast of the Cleveland Play House production of One Night with Janis Joplin. Over a dozen singers and band members come together to celebrate the queen of rock 'n' roll.

Becoming Joplin means conserving every ounce of energy she has.

"It's almost like when you're driving and the gas light comes on, how you shut off the air conditioning and everything and just kind of coasting," she says. "That's kind of how I am during the day. I do all my stuff through email if I can ... just because I have to save up every ounce for this."

There's also a physical transformation. Davies straightens her naturally curly hair just enough to give her the unruly hippie waves Joplin was famous for. And of course, there are the clothes: feathered boas, crazy hats, long necklaces and big sunglasses. Because the audience has to believe that it's Joplin standing on that stage.

"There's things in the show that I make sure that I do that are hers that are trademark," Davies says. "Because as a fan of hers, I would feel cheated if it didn't happen."

Like the scream at the end of "Piece of My Heart."

"As soon as I do the scream, its 'rahh!' and they're with us — because there's still that hesitation, like, 'Is this girl gonna be able to pull it off?' " Davies says.

The Audience Journeys Back

The show is loosely plotted. It's like a Joplin concert, only with musical numbers that pay tribute to the singers who inspired her: Odetta, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin.

The crowd here on this night is, as you might expect, made up many people who grew up listening to Joplin.

Marsha Nelson says Joplin is part of her lifeblood. When most of the buttoned-up D.C. audience was clapping politely in their seats, Nelson was pumping her fists in the air.

"I watch this crowd, and you can see the age group here, right? And it took a while. It took a while for people to stamp their feet. It took a while to remember. It took a while to get the blood boiling," she says. "And then bingo! They remember Janis! And it was fabulous."

Michael Joplin, Janis's younger brother, has been a big part of making this production happen. He has seen Davies play his sister on stage more times than he can count.

But still, he says there are these moments in the play, things that Davies does that get to him.

"There's a couple times when she raises her eyebrows that nobody in the audience would know but me," he says, "that just ... freak me out a little bit."

Michael Joplin says that when he watches the show now, he doesn't look at the stage.

"It's a beautiful thing to watch that happen, to watch the audience react much the same way they would with Janis," he says.

All That Swagger

Davies says she's rehearsed for this part since she was a teenager.

"I've been a fan of hers all my life ... It's kind of like I've been rehearsing for this role as a fan, through osmosis," she says, "and then I just had lots and lots of practice before I got to do it on stage. Because she's so fun, she's the ultimate hairbrush-mirror-sing-along artist for me when I was little."

Joplin, Davies says, had swagger.

"It's like, when you put that sequined belt on, there might as well be two six shooters on either side because you do feel like the sheriff, like there's this power that she gives you," she says.

Michael Joplin says his sister's Texan roots had a lot to do with that attitude.

A Reason To Celebrate

The production doesn't really explore the darker chapters in Janis Joplin's life, most notably her death in 1970. The show may not give a complete portrait, but Michael Joplin says that's not really what they were going for.

"We wanted to enjoy Janis. And I think the music does that, the history of Janis and where she came from and how she developed her style, that's what we were trying to talk about," he says, adding, "That's why it's called One Night with Janis, not One Life with Janis."

Michael Joplin's celebration of his sister spills over into his daily life, too. He regularly hears her songs on the radio or in stores, which he says is "totally cool."

"We've had a lot of time to deal with this, and normally when somebody in your family dies, they go away, and you might be lucky to have photographs and some film," he says. "But we've got — well, I'm here, doing this. And it's mind-boggling to me ... how I get to continuously visit with Janis."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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