I Spent the Night with Janis Joplin

by Soyini Driskell

The blues is just a good woman feeling bad 
Nobody feels the blues like an everyday woman
– Janis Joplin from A Night with Janis Joplin

Let me confess upfront: I am not one of those cool kids who knows Janis Joplin songs, her life story, her contributions to blues and rock music, nothing. Yet when I was invited to attend A Night with Janis Joplin on Broadway this week, I couldn’t think of a better way to further put off my Shakespeare reading (hey Professor Platt!). So I hopped on the train to the Lyceum Theatre for an evening with the lady from Port Arthur, Texas.

The musical was set up as a music revue with Janis Joplin singing her popular songs while supported by her background singers, the Joplinaires. In between, there were appearances by some of her musical inspirations, Etta James, Bessie Smith, and Nina Simone to name a few, and short monologues with Janis telling stories about her youth and path to stardom. The show aims to be fairly family friendly: it focused on the music and skated over Joplin’s notorious history with drugs and alcohol. While Janis does swig from a Southern Comfort bottle on stage, (known as her drink of choice and offered to audience members in Sippee cups to enjoy during the show, Drink like Janis!), she does so with a tongue-in-cheek camp meant to be funny, not evocative of self-destructive behavior.

She certainly puts on a show.

At the performance I attended, the understudy Kacee Clanton was in the role of Janis, and she was a revelation. She showcased an amazing, gravelly voice that was a beautiful homage to the singer’s famous voice: the audience worshipped her from the first note of “Summertime,” and once she got through “Piece of My Heart” and “Cry Baby,” the room was hers. What resonated with me was the feminist bent during her monologues: one of her first lines in the musical is “Nobody feels the blues like an everyday woman” and she continues to pepper the play with references to women’s lives, especially her own, well-suited to singing the blues. Though I assure you, all the ‘everyday men’ in attendance were also having a great time singing along to “Me and Bobby McGee.”

The show opened on October 10th and tickets are on sale through March 30th: I whole-heartedly recommend spending a night with Janis.

Soyini Driskell is a junior at Barnard and the On Campus and Features Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Images courtesy of Theatre’s Leiter Side and Soyini Driskell.

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