“Telling It Like It Is”: The Alley’s “A Night With Janis Joplin” Rocks the House

“Telling It Like It Is”: The Alley’s “A Night With Janis Joplin” Rocks the House


A few years ago I saw “Love, Janis” at The Alley Theatre.  It was one of the best things I had ever seen there, and I didn’t want it to end. The actress channeled Janis Joplin and her songs with aplomb, and it was one of the most successful runs in the history of The Alley.

Now, The Alley offers the stellar “A Night With Janis Joplin,” and although I don’t know how it is possible, it is even better. As in, about six standing ovations before the end of the show better.  From the minute the show opens with a rock band, dancing backup singers, and lighting that makes you feel like you really are at a Janis Joplin concert, the atmosphere is electric, and that excitement level never wanes.  You immediately plunge into Joplin’s deep pool of emotion and creativity, and you begin to understand how she was able to create music that was never imitative and wholly revolutionary, yet still connected to the musical predecessors that she so admired. It is easy to see how, for her, “Music is everything.”

With superlative musical performances that magically dovetail with the period costumes, the sets (which include a fantastic live band), and even moments of psychedelic images moving rhythmically on a screen, writer and director Randy Johnson orchestrates a perfect storm of music, monologue, and movement that engages the audience the entire time.  If this show doesn’t take a piece of your heart, nothing will.

From the moment the music starts, Kacee Clanton as Joplin captivates the audience with her mesmerizing performance of one of the most influential icons of pop music.  This is the role of a lifetime, and with her wild long hair, striking physical resemblance to Joplin, and her uncanny ability to embody not only Joplin’s unique and influential vocals, but also the emotional and physical intensity of her performances, it seems as though Clanton was destined to play this role. Clanton has it down, from Joplin’s explosive and emotional performances on stage, to her confessional musings that reveal not only elements of her life story, but her vulnerabilities and strong reactions to the art and music that informed her aesthetics.  Clanton’s phrasing is not only pitch perfect when singing, but also when speaking, capturing Joplin’s conversational style in a way that reminded me of Joplin when she would appear on The Dick Cavett Show: witty (“The Blues are so subtle!” and, people “like their Blues singers miserable!”), casual, unimpressed with the stifling conventions of the world around her.

As her conversational monologues with the audience unfold, the aesthetic influences that began with her Port Arthur, Texas upbringing come alive.  The entire show dramatizes the kaleidoscope of art that inspired Joplin to become a true original.

As superlative as Clanton’s version of Joplin is, “A Night With Janis Joplin” is not just a one-woman show—for Clanton is accompanied on stage with the performers who influenced her the most, including Bessie Smith (Cicily Daniels), Etta James (Tawny Dolley), Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone—with Franklin and Simone fantastically and unforgettably portrayed by Amma Osei.  Along with Jennifer Leigh Warren, these women play multiple roles, having to fill the tall order of alternating between being Joplin’s high energy back-up singers and the icons that had the music that propelled Joplin’s creativity and hard-won insights that permeated her lyrics.  The performances of these singers also had the crown riveted—sometimes in silent awe, sometimes clapping along, with several times a song followed by a well-deserved standing ovation.  Not only do these performances give an understanding of the music Joplin had in her head, but the individual and group performances of these women are absolutely phenomenal, and I cannot really choose a favorite, because all of them made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and I could have listened to them all night.  How do you channel Etta James or Nina Simone so convincingly?  I don’t know—but I don’t care, as long as I can see these four perform again and again.  The poignancy of their personal significance to Joplin is made even more intense by the profound talent of their stirring performances, no matter what the song or the genre, the choreography simultaneously bringing to life performance styles from past decades.  At one point Aretha Franklin quips, “This is not The Lawrence Welk Show.“ No, no it’s not.  It’s a heady cocktail, and you don’t want the party to end.

One of the major themes in the show is the presence of loneliness—not only for Joplin, but for everyone—and the way loneliness was a part of Joplin’s emotional spectrum that inspired her to write such powerful yet relatable songs that shook up the music world.  When Joplin states that “The blues are a bad woman feeling good!” you know what she means.  The writing is so utterly believable: Joplin calls her father “a secret intellectual,’ confesses that when she got a library card that “it was like the universe opened up,” and that when she looked at art books in a museum-less Port Arthur, it was “like I had come alive.”

The split level set, which allows for a dramatic, silver sequined entrance by Aretha Franklin, as well as moments of shadowy images of Joplin’s beloved group The Chantels, serves as a model of efficiency as it dramatizes how these musical icons psychologically backed Joplin up, continuously sustaining her musical productivity until her death.

From her jeans and bell-bottomed outfits to her whisky-swigging moments, no detail seems to be missing from “A Night With Janis Joplin.”  Not a gesture, not a dance move, not a note.  When the standing ovation for “Piece of My Heart” was in full throttle, I was right there with everyone on my feet, marveling at Clanton’s performance.  Artistic Director Gregory Boyd is absolutely right when he says, “She was unique, she was hugely influential, but mostly she was that rarest of things—a performer whose honesty and feeling were undeniable, and who left something of herself in everyone who heard her.”  And for an artist who is so strongly remembered for her untimely death from an accidental overdose, this vibrant show reminds us that when Joplin was alive, she was really alive, a card-carrying Romantic who privileged emotion and feeling over everything else, with music being the most important manifestation of those things.  When she reveals that “I just want to feel everything I can,” you are so caught up in her charisma, you want to join that cult of emotion. Joplin admired The Blues and the women who sang them because for her, The Blues “tell it like it is”—providing an authenticity she deeply respected, embodying a “mood” that was “based in the have-not.” Whether she knew it or not, Joplin was a musical feminist, cheering for “the everyday woman.” There is still no one quite like her.  “None of us are who we started out as,” Janis tells her audience, and we believe her.  She can even wax philosophical, claiming that “song writers…are the real intellectuals” because they “create questions with no answers.”  Indeed.

Many of the songs, including “Me and Bobby McGee,” were so entrancing you pretty much thought you were watching Janis Joplin in all of her raspy and raw-throated glory, the suspension of disbelief is so excellently delivered.  When you leave this show, the performances teach you something about the nature of great performing in a way that mirrors Joplin’s own view:  that “all that really matters are feelings,” and that the worst thing you can do in music, and in life, is to “play games.”  Authenticity and truth are better. Joplin “used to want to be Zelda” in an admiration of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s “hell-bent way of living.”  She did that, but on her own terms, rejecting traditional paths, and realizing that the most important relationship in her life was with her audience.  She tells us, “You’re the One!” and it is magic.

If you weren’t lucky enough to have seen Joplin perform when she was alive, this is the closest you are ever going to get.

“A Night With Janis Joplin” runs at The Alley Theatre August 19-September 18 in the Hubbard Theatre.

Note: A shorter version of this essay appeared in Houstonia Magazine‘s “On the Town” Arts and Culture channel.



Mom The Theologian


IMG_7015 copy 2Recently Virginia Cerna - Teen Portrait 2my sister passed along to me a curious artifact from the history of our family: one of our mother’s college blue book exams, dated November 26, 1946. The school is Incarnate Word College, San Antonio, Texas, now a university of the same name. The course is “Religion”. Virginia Cerna was then just nineteen years old–a decade away from marriage and motherhood. The instructor marked the exam “quite good” but, in those pre-grade inflation days, she received only an A-. Even so, someone in the family (her own mother?) must have been especially proud of this exam to have preserved it. For me, these 70 years later, the exam offers a poignant glimpse into both my mother’s young faith and the state of Catholicism in mid-twentieth century America.

Through six pages and fourteen short handwritten answers, Virginia replies to her instructor’s questions about the Bible and the Catholic faith.  Her handwriting is fine, in the old-school way, though subject to the vagaries of the fountain pen (the ink grows progressively lighter to the end of question 5, then becomes and stays dark from question 6 to the end). Her answers are confident though far from brash. She writes in the serene tone of mid-century American Catholicism, before the Church’s years of doubt and dissent began. “The only finally reliable way to fix the Canon of the Bible is on the authority of the Church,” she begins her answer to question #4–restating a Catholic tenet as it undoubtedly appeared in the question itself. “The beginning of John’s gospel deals with the Incarnation and the proof of Christs [sic] nature–both God and man,” she replies to question #6. “This is very important because if Christ were not divine and human the bottom of our religion falls through.”

Even her occasional errors and speculations have a carefree feel, and her instructor responds with equally breezy corrections. It is as though the truth appeared so solid and impregnable that no one on either side of the lectern is terribly worried. Why was the New Testament alone not a sufficient source for Christ’s teachings in the early Church? Because “there were not enough copies to circulate among the people,” Virginia answers, implausibly. The instructor, who probably wanted her to say that the New Testament books were written after the Church came into being, simply noted in the margin “written late.” Why did the Gospel of John use the term “Word” for the Son of God? Mom’s answer: To show “in a way that the Son is a person of God so closely in union with the Father to be One since our words are so closely united with ourselves.” To this the instructor only cheerily remarked “Hmm!”



Later, in the full bloom of adulthood, Virginia Cerna became a teacher (of biology), a wife, and Mom. The play of mind that I detect in her blue book persisted throughout the years I knew her. For reasons that were never clear to me, she loved the writings of abstruse Catholic philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. I see her now as the kind of student Christian colleges today strive so hard to produce. Given a sound Christian education in the liberal arts, she kept it with her throughout her life, developing and being developed by it.

She also remained a Catholic. The confident faith that my mother expressed in her religion exam never left her. Indeed, her faith has always seemed to me to be something she had acquired easily and retained easily. God seems to have showered her with many graces that smoothed her spiritual road and kept her on it. But these are assertions that no blue book, however revealing, could ever prove.




Are You Not Entertained?


Critics of Donald Trump have once again underestimated a candidate whose hallmark seems to be overcoming the odds.  There’s a growing chance that when the sun comes up on January 21, 2017, President Trump may be seated in the oval office, bent on making American great again.

Cruz and Kasich have conceded that neither can secure the Republican nomination on delegate count alone.  Their recent alliance is an attempt to deny Trump the 1237 delegates he needs to secure the nomination. It has turned from a traditional “vote for me” campaign into an historic “vote against Trump campaign.”  So why has an unlikely candidate like Trump succeeded in securing a significant lead towards the Republican nomination? Continue reading

Endorsing Trump: Ben Carson’s Fallacious Reasoning


I’ve got a new post at Reformation 21 in which I dissect Ben Carson’s endorsement of Donald Trump.

I’m sure Ben Carson is a nice man, but he has fallen for Trump’s empty sales pitch, and he offers us fallacious reasons to do the same. When people try to stop Trump, it does not thwart the political process; it’s part of our political process. Trump’s lack of money from special interest groups will not ensure good decision making; in fact, it could hurt it. And President Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be the worst thing this country has experienced. It would be much worse if Americans consigned their values to the dustbin because they hope for some short-term political gain.

You can read the rest here.