As the Alley Theatre brings the Broadway sensation A Night With Janis Joplin home to Texas, audiences can be assured a Joplin expert will be driving this performance. In one incarnation or another, actress and singer Kacee Clanton has been stepping into the role of the '60s rock and blues icon off and on for 15 years, including as the Broadway production of the show; in an earlier version, One Night with Janis Joplin where she debuted the role in Austin; in the musical Love, Janis; and even touring with Joplin’s original San Francisco band Big Brother and the Holding Company.
When I recently had a chance to speak with Clanton at the Alley, my first question had to be what brought her back again and again to play this Texas musical legend. Her answer was both practical and personal.
“There aren’t that many women who can play this role. There’s only a handful of us. It’s very difficult to cast. The vocal strength it takes is ridiculous,” she explained, but added that she’s been called to play Janis so often that she’s felt a profound bond to the big-voiced girl from Port Arthur.
“Over the years I have gotten close to her. I’ve gotten to know her, and I’ve fallen in love with the character. Even though it’s exhausting as an actor and very draining, but I love her.”
Knowing the Blues
Speaking with Clanton about her struggles and achievements as an actress, I soon realized that her love for Joplin perhaps springs from the connections she feels with the woman.
“I have lived her life on the road for my career,” she described. “I’ve done this so long that I know what Janis is talking about when she has the blues and when she’s lonely. I’ve given up family and everything else for this career, so I get it. She has this quote where she says: ‘I go out and I make love to 20,000 people a night, and I still go home alone.’ I lived that for so long that I think it brings an authenticity to the role.”
As Clanton’s performance seems to be fueled by love and affinity, I thought she might best analyze our own relationship with Janis. Why has the Joplin story endured so long, not just for Texans, and why can’t we ever let her go?
“Clearly the music has a lot to do with it,” she answered. “These are unbelievable, iconic songs. And the other side of it is Janis the character. She’s intoxicating because she’s so vulnerable and honest on stage. There isn’t a lot of that. There wasn’t then and there’s even less now. I think she really opened up a vein every time she walked on stage.”
While A Night with Janis Joplin, which is created and directed by Randy Johnson, depicts that openness and vulnerability of Joplin, Clanton says the show doesn’t revel in the dark depths of her death but instead depicts how she soared onstage. The show also gives voice to other female musical legends like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith. Their songs influenced Joplin when she was just a hometown girl dreaming of her musical place in the world and A Night with Janis Joplin also becomes a night with the women who helped make her who she was.
“This particular show is a real celebration of these mighty, fierce female singers that Janis loved and helped form her, and these are the singers I grew up on,” Clanton explained, making another personal connection between Joplin and herself. “My mom listened to Nina Simone, and I grew up on Bessie Smith and a lot of these artists. That’s part of how I found that my truth in Janis was inside this music because it was such a piece of my childhood as well.”
Clanton credits Johnson with making the show such a unique depiction of Joplin that highlights her artistry and onstage brilliance instead of delving solely into her pain.
“I think he wanted to do something different. We all know the story of Janis and the tragedy and the dark parts. Some people seem to fest on those things. I think he really wanted to celebrate her and celebrate the music that made her what she was,” Clanton said, and seemed joyful to perform with actresses playing those spiritual musical mothers of Joplin.
“I get to share the stage with these amazing women and listen to this music. These are fierce women and the women who play them are fierce. It’s just a serious female power show. I think the audience gets a charge out of it because it’s such a warrior woman show,” she said.
And what about that audience? Sure she made it on Broadway, but is she ready to bring Janis back to her home where we still hold her deep in our Texas hearts?
“Being in Texas is always different,” she admitted. “When you do Janis in Texas it’s a whole other ballgame. They’re so familiar with all the things we talk about in the show, the places and the people. They identify a lot more, and there’s a lot more chatter. I want to make sure every time I walk on stage I’m absolutely telling the truth in every moment because this is their Janis.”
A Night with Janis Joplin runs through September 18.