My Night with Janis Joplin

The dinner I had before the show was fabulous.

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I had seen a version of this show, “A Night with Janis Joplin,” many years ago, but it was called “Love, Janis” after the book Janis’s sister, Laura, had written. I saw it in the small Lyceum Theatre, and I remember being so moved by the portrayal of Janis, by the music, by her story. I took a 60s music class in college, and my final paper was all about Janis, based mostly on Laura’s book. (I’d be curious to read that paper again now.) I have long felt a kinship to her, out of nothing, really, just an admiration, some kind of innate understanding of who she was. I’ve written several poems about her. I have a couple framed photos of her that I cherish.

It’s 2018. And I have become more and more aware of the injustices suffered by people of color, so it became clear to me tonight that Janis was yet another white person who used the blues and the styles of the women of color who had come before her, Odetta and Bessie Smith to name a couple, to find her way. Kind of the way Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name a couple, did. Now it’s true that Janis always claimed to identify with Odetta and Bessie Smith, that she tried to emulate them, that she felt most comfortable being known as a blues singer, that she was for racial equality, wanting people to know about these great artists.

I found an article that explains what I’m trying to get across. Here’s an excerpt:

“She [Janis] spoke often about her love for [Big Mama] Thornton and Bessie Smith and other performers, and listening to her it’s obvious she has an affinity for their music. As a result, her use of the blues tradition of pain and sorrow seems less like simple appropriation, and more like sharing or sisterhood— an effort to connect the troubles and the pain that both black women and white women have in common.

Joplin’s talent, then, is a bridge over, or at least a detour around, the impasse of race. Traditions belong not to black people or white people, but to whoever can grab hold of them convincingly.”

But then there’s also this analysis from the same article:

“…you sometimes wonder if Joplin’s talent isn’t a bridge so much as it is a distraction. That Cheap Thrills album cover has a blackface caricature or two on it, after all, and it’s not exactly clear what good sisterly solidarity is if it doesn’t even inspire you to keep ugly racist cartoons off the authentic product you’re selling. For that matter it’s [Miley] Cyrus, not Joplin, who performed in an integrated context, which means it was Cyrus, not Joplin who was at least willing to pay some actual black women directly in return for stepping on them.”

This show tonight was different than the other show I had seen. This one, at least, highlighted the black singers and their music, and I’m actually glad to have been exposed to the talents of these phenomenal women: Aurianna Angelique, who played Odetta, Bessie Smith, and was one of the Chantels; Ashley Tamar Davis, who played one of the Chantels, Blues Woman, and Aretha Franklin; Tawny Dolley, who played Etta James and one of the Chantels; and Jennifer Leigh Warren, who played Blues Singer. They were awesome. Mixed in with their performances were bits and pieces of “Janis” (played by Kelly McIntyre) singing but also narrating her life story. McIntyre was fine, but I was always aware that this person was pretending to be Janis. I know that sounds dumb. But sometimes it’s easy to believe it. It wasn’t easy for me. The parts of the show with Janis seemed very contrived, and I didn’t dig it. I left at intermission. I could see in the program that the 2nd half was mostly all Janis whereas the first half had these other women singing.

[As an aside, another thing I learned from this evening was that Nina Simone recorded (and had an album titled) “Little Girl Blue.” I knew that Janis hadn’t written the song (Simone didn’t either) though she did rearrange the lyrics. But in Love, Janis, there was no mention of Nina Simone, so in that context, I was unaware. But the writer of “A Night with Janis Joplin” must have felt strongly that Simone should be included.]

So there you have it. I still love Janis, for the energy she put into her performances, for the vulnerability she tried desperately to overcome, for the ‘just fucking feel’ attitude she had, but now there’s a new layer that I can’t ignore, one that I will probably read up on a little bit more.

(Dinner was great though)!

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