A piece of our hearts
Love, Janis gives audiences a look at a woman to whom everyone can relate
“November 1966. Dear Mother,” actress Morgan Hallett says thoughtfully, seated in an armchair that is part of the spare on-stage décor, which includes photographic stills of San Francisco landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I feel so delinquent not having written in so long—and you just getting over a serious operation. … I really am … very proud of the stoic way you handled everything …”
Following Hallett’s spoken portion, Katrina Chester—looking a lot like Janis Joplin in her black velvet dress with a bodice of multicolored crocheted flowers—electrifyingly belts out tunes like “Down On Me” and “Piece of My Heart” for which Janis is so famous. Chester is backed by a talented (and loud), hippie-looking band of session musicians standing in front of a huge backdrop upon which mesmerizing psychedelic lighting is projected, in stark contrast to the calmness on stage when Hallett speaks.
The production of Love, Janis (based on the best-selling book by Joplin’s younger sister Laura) has been breathing new life to the late singer and ‘60s cultural icon for more than a decade. The play serves as a symbol of the struggle of women in America in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, or, for that matter, the struggle of any one person to come to terms with what life has handed him or her.
On stage, the contrasting sides of Janis Joplin come together occasionally when both the actress and the singer respond to a disembodied interviewer’s voice simultaneously.
At one point in the second half of the play, the interviewer asks, “Do you sing from your diaphragm?”
Janis stops a moment to think, before shooting back, “I sing from my mouth, mother fucker! When I can’t sing any more, I’ll bake organic bread and have babies. Anybody got a god damn cigarette?”
Love, Janis is based on the best-selling 1992 biographical book with the same title, painstakingly and lovingly written by Janis Joplin’s younger sister Laura, who has lived in Chico since 2001. Laura loved the small-town atmosphere of Chico, which reminded her fondly of another town she had lived in—Prescott, Ariz. Laura also moved to Chico “for romance” after being introduced to her present-day husband Bob Littell—talent liaison and emcee at Sierra Nevada Brewery’s Big Room—in her former home base of Denver, Colo.
An updated paperback version of Laura’s book, containing additional letters, was re-released by Harper in August of 2005. The newly surfaced letters were also consulted and woven into the current San Francisco version of the play. The show opened in 1994 and even spent two years in New York before finally coming to San Francisco this month.
Laura—an intelligent, thoughtful woman with an endearing, understated Texas wit—chose Tony-nominated New York writer-director Randal Myler to write the stage version of her book after seeing his critically acclaimed bio-musical play Hank Williams: Lost Highway, also about a famous musician who never made it into his 30s.
Laura was impressed with Myler’s fleshing out of Williams as a complex character, rather than just portraying him one-dimensionally, as it is tempting to do with a tragic figure.
“People have a tendency to ‘single-issue’ people,” Laura acknowledged. “It’s a challenge to represent a strong woman.”
Like the book, the stage version of Love, Janis is largely based on the articulate, soul-searching and often funny letters that Joplin wrote to her parents and two younger siblings in small-town Port Arthur, Texas (where she had often felt like an outcast growing up in the ‘50s), over the course of her meteoric rise to superstardom.
“Some playwrights were too young and some were too old,” Laura said about going with Myler. “Randy saw the show in his mind. He fell in love with the letters. … Every word spoken by Janis is a quote from a letter or interview.”
Myler also grew up in the Bay Area and had seen Janis perform on several occasions.
“Like a lot of fans I had distilled [Janis] down to a one-dimensional icon,” Myler said. “But after I read the letters [in a draft of the book that Laura had given him] … they were so extraordinary and so unlike the stage persona that I had thought was Janis.
“I didn’t write a thing [for Love, Janis],” added Myler, who also directs the show. “I didn’t want to write another womb-to-tomb biography [like Lost Highway]. It’s all Janis’ words … It’s a very simple thing and that’s what’s so powerful.”
Laura Joplin and Myler said that resembling Janis was not a prerequisite for the part, it was the feisty spirit and the willingness to give their all that counted, at which Chester and Hallett both excelled (one sings, and the other recites the letters that Joplin wrote home to her family).
An onstage band overseen by musical director Sam Andrew, a founding member of Joplin’s group Big Brother & The Holding Co., adds to the intensity and makes Love, Janis a colorful, upbeat and not-volume-shy romp through the last four years of her short life.
The 36-year-old Chester, a petite blonde New York City-based actress who is one of two singers trading off the demanding singing part of the iconic ‘60s blues-rocker, explained prior to the show that she loves how Joplin commanded the band and was the consummate front person—even back then.
“Even today there are not a lot of front women,” said Chester, who was discovered while playing in her own rock band Luxx.
The performance was one of the first in Joplin’s adopted hometown of San Francisco. Afterwards I recalled words Myler had uttered to me when we spoke days before the show: “It’s a universal story. We’ve all met someone who is like that. Eventually you sit in the dark in the audience and you see family members.”
Exactly, I thought.
It had hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks about three-quarters of the way through the show that Joplin died from a heroin overdose in October of 1970 at the age of 27, and my own mother, a housewife with five kids living in a rural Northern California town, died shortly after, in March of 1971, from an overdose of prescription medication at the age of 35.
I came to the teary realization, after the scene in which Hallett is sitting in a chair shooting up, that both the very famous Joplin and my mother were bright, sensitive, hard-working young women whose struggles to come to terms with life ended in tragic early deaths. In that moment, Joplin’s life story became very personal for me.
Not that I needed that revelation-of-sorts to engage me in this very engrossing—and rocking—piece of biographical and musical theater.