Mary Bridget Davies is living out a lifelong dream: performing on stage the music of one of her most beloved singers, Janis Joplin, in One Night With Janis Joplin, opening at The Mead Center in Washington DC on October 4th. Davies has stepped into Joplin’s platform shoes before, starring in a production of Love, Janis, the 2001 musical based on sister Laura Joplin’s book of the same name.
For Davies, her love of Janis runs deep, growing up in a musical household where she constantly heard Janis along with pioneers in soul and R&B like Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and Tina Turner. She also has fond memories of telling her elementary school classmates that she was related to Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks. (Sadly, this story was nothing more than a schoolyard fib.)
Growing up in Cleveland, home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mary was delighted by the Hall’s exhibit on Women in the Blues. These women, many still oft-overlooked and underappreciated by contemporary audiences, laid the groundwork for assertive females in blues, soul, and eventually rock music; the most notable of these are Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, and Memphis Minnie.
Bessie Smith was a huge inspiration for young Janis Joplin. Joplin actually paid for Bessie Smith to have a proper grave marker in 1970, some thirty-three years after her death. In exploring the influences of one of her musical heroes, Mary deepened her love and appreciation of Janis’ music while also picking up some new favorites.
In 2001, Mary sent an email to the members of Big Brother and The Holding Company, the band that helped launch Janis Joplin into stardom, simply expressing her fandom and that she herself was inspired to become a singer. Almost immediately after, Mary received a reply from Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrew, who offered her to join them onstage the next time they were in town. When the opportunity finally arose, Sam asked if she would like to sing “Me and Bobby McGee,” one of Janis’ signature tunes.
After Mary’s stint in Love, Janis, a number of fans still regularly contact her with the latest in Janis-related news, including the auditions in New York City for a production One Night With Janis Joplin in Cleveland. Following a round of auditioning – including an acting audition with none other than Liza Minelli in the audience among the producers and Janis’ siblings (“I made Liza Minelli laugh,” Mary said with great enthusiasm) – Mary had to wait an entire month to hear back.
Mary and Sam Andrew had remained in contact and struck up a collaborative relationship, and it was while she was accompanying Big Brother and The Holding Company on a tour of Europe as their lead singer that she got the callback. Mary recalls the order of the conversation: “So I got the callback and they asked if I would be interested in the role…and I quickly said, ‘YES!’…of understudy.” She reluctantly accepted, but as fate would have it, the original lead “blew out her voice” in rehearsals, leading to Mary stepping into the lead. “I got to do the whole run in Cleveland, including two-a-days on Saturdays,” she added.
Along with her work playing Janis, Mary has her own band, The Mary Bridget Davies Group. They regularly perform all over and have received some high accolades, including a Best Blues Band nomination by the Kansas City Pitch and 2nd place at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. She recorded her first album, Wanna Feel Somethin’, last year and she currently has plans in the works to record a live album featuring new, old, and cover songs alike. “Being in the studio can get sterile,” she said, adding that because so many of her fans have come to her by seeing her live, releasing a live album would capture her at her absolute best.
Mary also has worked with Sam Andrew – including co-writing songs – on an upcoming album. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with that, but it is a full collaborative effort. It’s kind of like Big Brother and the Cleveland Company,” she said in jest, adding that “it’s cool that we got swept into this wave. Who would have thought I would have been writing with Sam Andrew when I was listening to ‘Piece of My Heart’ in my bedroom growing up?”
The D.C. production of One Night With Janis Joplin runs throughout October and closes on November 4th. Mary will then reprise the role in a Cleveland production later this year and has already committed to being in the Austin show next year. She is looking forward to returning to Texas, Janis’ home state, where she has already played her idol in Love, Janis. It was at one of these performances that she had a rather unique group in the audience: Laura Joplin arranged for her high school class to reunite to catch the show. On another night of the show in Texas, Mary got to meet rocker Edgar Winter, who greeted her by saying, “So, I hear you do Janis justice.”
While a lot of biographical shows can fall into the details of despair and turmoil of a star’s life, Mary said, “This production isn’t a pity party. It is a celebration of her and her music,” adding that the 23-song show is meant to embody its title. “It’s supposed to be like a night with Janis Joplin – she wouldn’t go up there and talk about how sad she was!” Her own experience as a performer has paid off to combat the physically exhausting routine, adding that “When that curtain comes down, we say, ‘Ah, that was nice.’ (pause) Let’s do it again tomorrow!”
One Night With Janis Joplin (written and directed by Randy Johnson) is currently playing in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW in Washington, DC until November 4. Tickets can be purchased at arenastage.org
For more about Mary Bridget Davies visit her website, marybridgetdavies.com
All photos by Janet Macoska
All photos are Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin
Sabrina Elayne Carten as Blues Singer
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Station 4
Favorite Place to Shop: LUSH Fresh Handmade Cosmetics
Favorite DC Sight: “Women Who Rock” exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts
Favorite DC Moment: Seeing one of Janis Joplin’s dresses and her handwritten lyrics at the “Women Who Rock” exhibit
What You Love About DC: DC is such a busy city, and it’s got this youthful exuberance. The last time I was here was in 8th grade, and DC is a lot more hip than I thought it would be coming in! Everywhere you look there is something going on, and being here right before the elections mean there is this political charge in the air.
What You Hate About DC: The traffic! Everything is so congested.