There’s no question David H. Bell has come a long way since his early years in Atlanta, directing shows at the old Harlequin dinner theater and various cabaret clubs during the late 1970s.
He moved back here from New York for most of the ’90s, to serve as associate to then-artistic director Kenny Leon at the Alliance Theatre, where Bell staged some 20 productions.
In the 10 years since he relocated to Chicago, Bell has amassed a wide-ranging and well-respected resume. His work has taken him all over the world -- New York, London, Paris. And when he isn’t directing, he also heads the music theater program at Northwestern University.
Still, for all that, Bell admits he had something of an epiphany during a recent rehearsal for “Gut Bucket Blues,” the writer-director’s world premiere musical about 1920s singer Bessie Smith (through Nov. 7 at Balzer Theater).
“It’s not that I’m channeling my inner African-American, but it was one of those real eye-opening, eureka moments, when I suddenly realized there was this whole other voice and history that I felt I wanted to explore theatrically,” Bell explained.
“This is the kind of story and material that doesn’t usually cross my desk. As a 61-year-old white man, living in the confines of a very white suburb of Chicago, there’s a woeful lack of contact with African-American culture. That’s what’s been so thrilling about working on this project -- getting in touch with that.”
It’s also what makes “Gut Bucket Blues” a perfect reunion piece for Bell and Leon, whose True Colors Theatre Company is producing the show.
“I’ve never worked with another artist of any color who was as embracing of multiculturalism as Kenny is,” Bell said. “It isn’t a badge he wears on his sleeve. It’s just who he is. He’s always looking for those areas of interaction. It isn’t just about the black experience or the white experience, but about the space in between.”
As Leon recalled, “I thought it was a shame that David hadn’t been back here since he left, and that we really needed to welcome him home. We’d been talking about collaborating on something for a few years, but the timing never seemed to work out. When he mentioned Bessie Smith as one of the ideas he was thinking about, that was all I needed to hear.
“There’s a certain type of show that David can do better than anyone else, and this is it,” Leon said. “His writing and directing and choreography have a heart and a style that I don’t see with other people. I knew he would pay attention to detail and honor the history of her story, but that he would also make the show feel fresh for today, instead of old and stuffy.”
Bell’s True Colors cast features Adrienne Reynolds as Bessie, Jahi Kearse as two of the influential men in her life (manager Lonnie Fisher and husband Jack Gee) and Christopher Morgan as her brother Clarence. Amber Iman, J.C. Long and Latrice Pace round out the ensemble.
Under the musical direction of JMichael, the show includes renditions of such Smith hits as “After You’ve Gone,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “St. Louis Blues” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”
The music posed its own challenges. “The nature of the blues is such that an entire evening of standards isn’t exactly fun or entertaining, so we wanted to incorporate more of Bessie’s up-tempo songs,” Bell said.
Moreover, shows that chart the tumultuous ups and downs in the life and career of a famous singer are hardly new, so Bell made a point of avoiding certain clichés of the genre. “I didn’t want to do something like [the Billie Holiday biopic] ‘Lady Sings the Blues,’ with that kind of mournful self-destruction about it,” he said. “I didn’t want audiences spending a couple of hours with a poor victim.”
But in the early stages of development, at least, Bell’s biggest obstacle was the woman herself, who could be as abusive as she was abused.
“In many ways, she’s sort of like a shark that needs to keep swimming forward in order to survive. She eats and drinks and sings and has sex, and she’s so unapologetic for what her human needs are, for how she conducts herself or how she treats other people,” the director observed.
“I didn’t know that I’d like her as a person or want her for a friend, but once I started writing the character, I found myself living vicariously through her wonderfully irreverent persona, admiring her for those qualities that I’ve never had myself. She’s the sort of person who says just what she thinks, when most of us don’t. I ended up loving her.”
Bell hopes audiences will, too, no matter how familiar they are with the woman or her music.
“There’s an immediacy about who she is, an ability to just be,” he said. “In a lot of ways, she was ahead of her time. We live in an age now of so many manufactured images. They’re almost painful to watch, because we know we’re not getting a degree of authenticity. It’s this very elaborate façade created for the press. The fact that Bessie just didn’t care about any of that stuff makes her something real and refreshing.”
“Gut Bucket Blues.” Through Nov. 7. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $20-$45. Balzer Theater, 84 Luckie St., Atlanta. 877-725-8859. truecolorstheatre.org .
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