Performing Arts: ‘One Night With Janis Joplin’

by patrickmccoy

Sabrina Carten opens up about her role in “One Night with Janis Joplin” at Arena Stage.

Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin. (Photo by Janet Macoska)

At a glance, Randy Johnson‘s “One Night With Janis Joplin” at Arena Stage appears to be solely about the legendary rock star. On the contrary, the production not only gives in-depth insight into Joplin’s life, but it also shines the spotlight on the great musicians that influenced her. Mary Bridget Davies brought a powerhouse delivery in her portrayal of Joplin as her voice boomed with authority every time. Each song that was performed tied into a specific singer that served as inspiration for the rocker’s music.

Great artists like Odetta, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin were celebrated as Davies brought depth to her rendering of the songs that influenced Joplin’s career. During the moment in which Joplin reflects on her mother’s love of broadway musicals, the beautiful performance of “Summertime” from Gershwin‘s “Porgy and Bess” by Sabrina Carten was a perfect example of the diversity of Joplin’s musical influences. Carten brought a soulful contrast to the edgy delivery by Davies. The atmosphere set by the band and the convincing monologue by Davies transported the audience to a true concert experience . WL Performing Arts chatted further with Carten, who portrays the Blues Singer in the production.

Washington Life: How were you introduced to the music of Janis Joplin and her career as a rock star?

Sabrina Carten: Well, I got a chance to listen to a little bit of her music growing up. My older cousin listened to her and I got a chance to get into some of her big hits such as “Piece of My Heart,” “Mercedes Benz,” things like that. Once I became a part of this production, I started to do my own research and listened to some of the things that were not mainstream that she had done and watched some of her interviews. Particularly, I listened to the words and things she was saying based on the time period, which were pretty revolutionary for her as woman because women were not singing, acting or talking that way. It was more prim, proper and refined, but I think the time during the Vietnam War brought a group of young people together who needed a voice to say what they did not like. This enhanced them and spoke to that generation.


Sabrina Elayne Carten as the Blues Singer (Photo by Janet Macoska)

WL: How has your operatic training prepared you for this particular production?

SC: Well, it kept me from loosing my voice. From a technical standpoint, it has given me the opportunity not to just sing on my vocal cords. I really believe that classical vocal training will allow you to sing whatever it is you want to sing and sing it well.

WL: A wonderful contrast in the evening was hearing you sing “Summertime” from Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess.” Could you speak more about the influence of opera and broadway on Joplin’s career?

SC: Well, she grew up listening to a lot of showtunes and Broadway musicals because her mother was an aspiring Broadway star. She listened to a lot of the musicals of the time such as “Showboat,” “West Side Story” and  “My Fair Lady.” During that time, the opera “Porgy and Bess” was thought of as a Broadway show and commonly treated that way until opera companies started to do it. If you don’t know anything else from “Porgy and Bess,” you know “Summertime.” What a wonderful way for her to give tribute to the music that she grew up with than to make her own rendition and especially with the way Randy Johnson, the production’s creator, tied in the Gershwin original.

WL: The show has quite a run. How do you maintain the vitality of the various artists that you channel as the Blues Singer each night?

SC: When I am in the dressing room making those slight costume changes, I look in the mirror and make that transition. For instance, before Odetta sometimes I play “Down on Me” so it can get down in my system. I try to envision each character before I go out to portray them.

WL: What stands out to you about Mary Bridget Davies’ portrayal of Joplin and the production in general?

SC: I think that Mary Bridget Davies’ portrayal personifies the role of Janis Joplin. She’s a fantastic musician, a hard worker, she has an amazing ear and an affinity for the blues, so she steps into this role with all that background behind her and makes it grow even further.  It is a pleasure to be there with her. The band members are amazing. When it is time for them to do their solos they are not pre-scripted.  They make them up every night. The show is slightly different each time.

“One Night With Janis Joplin” continues at Arena Stage through November 4.

Petersburg, Va. native Patrick D. McCoy received a B.M. in vocal performance from Virginia State University and an M.M. in church music from the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. He has contributed arts and culture pieces to CBS Washington, The Afro-American Newspaper and the newly published book, “In Spite of the Drawbacks” (Association of Black Women Historians), which includes his chapter on legendary soprano Leontyne Price. McCoy has interviewed some of the most acclaimed artists of our time, including Denyce Graves, Norman Scribner, Julian Wachner, Christine Brewer and Lawrence Brownlee. Listen to these interviews and others at Blog Talk Radio. McCoy may be reached via email at and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.

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