The Empress 

Bessie Smith lives on

Wild women don't get the blues, and singer Bessie Smith was one of the wildest. Orphaned young, she sang on a Chattanooga street corner for nickels and dimes. As a teenager she came under the wing of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, but was soon on her own, belting out blues like "T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness if I Do" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Known as "the Empress," Smith was there for the birth of wax, cutting more than 160 records before her death in 1937.Even the stodgiest biographer can't resist mentioning Smith's appetite for fast living, rough liquor, and "buffet flats" (a sort of specialized brothel where you could find "everything there was in the life"). She did what she liked, when she liked, with whom she liked, and wasn't afraid of anyone (except her jealous husband) or what they thought of her. Stabbed with a kitchen knife, she chased her attacker for three blocks before giving up. One night in 1927, Klansmen pulled out the stakes of the tent in which Smith was performing, collapsing the structure. She confronted the hooded intruders, yelling "You just pick up them sheets and run!" Which, startled, they did.

In honor of African-American History Month, Contra Costa College presents Bessie Smith, a series of vignettes directed by Kathryn G. McCarty. Performances are Friday and Saturday, February 21 and 22, at 8 pm, and Sunday, February 23 at 2 pm, at the Knox Center for the Performing Arts at the corner of El Portal and Castro in San Pablo. Tickets are $5 for students and seniors, $8 general admission. Call 510-235-7800, extension 4274, for information and tickets. -- Lisa Drostova

Ear It Is
World premiere comedy at Transparent

The folks over at Transparent Theater never met a meta they didn't like, and The Rehearsal is proof positive of that. The world-premiere comedy, written expressly for Transparent, lets the audience spy on two calamitous rehearsals of The Ear, a fictional play by a fictional, obscure Hungarian playwright. Among scenic artist Anne Goldschmidt's maze of wooden posts, the play's scenic designer asks for too much from the meager budget, the director wastes too much time, and the cast doesn't like each other too much. After intermission, the set is reconfigured and The Ear itself is performed, with a dizzying amount of difficulty. The writers of The Rehearsal are two Brits who have primarily toiled in television, Alan Connor Hamilton (former presenter for The Word) and Mark Chappell (TV series Poker Nite, Cold Feet). The play runs February 21-March 23, Thursdays through Sundays. Transparent is located at 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. 510-883-0305. -- Stefanie Kalem

Crookaletta!
Hip-hop theater, anyone?

Crookaletta. The word rolls on the tongue. It's fun to say. Sounds like a town in Mississippi, or the name of a New Orleans nightclub femme fatale, as in "Crookaletta broke my heart and stole my Cadillac. I'm gon' kill her." But no, the Crookaletta we might meet at the Black Dot Cafe in Oakland is the Crookaletta Company, billed as a first-of-its-kind hip-hop theater company, formed to give exposure to innovative new playwrights, actors, dancers, and spoken-word performers. The name comes from an African-American nursery rhyme that talks about the "crooked letter" -- S. The company gave itself that name, in its own words, "to point out how art and language are bendable and susceptible to change," and the Crookaletta Sunday Show lives up to that. It's a stage variety show starring Hanifah Walidah, Shawn Taylor, and Traci Bartlow performing short comic and dramatic vignettes in the hip-hop idiom the last Sunday of every month, including February 23, 5 p.m., at the Black Dot, 1431 23rd Ave. in Oakland's San Antonio district. 510-532-8559. -- Kelly Vance

Late Valentine

Get some rhythm, find your muse. During the Berkeley Art Center's annual Members' Showcase, there are receptions, parties, concerts, and artists' support groups, but let's not forget BACA's ongoing Rhythm and Muse Saturday nights, when young -- and not-so-young -- spoken-word hopefuls have a chance to let their voices float ecstatically above Live Oak Park. There's always a featured reader, and this week (Saturday, February 22) it's Valentine Pierce. (With a name like that, she probably should have been scheduled a week earlier.) Open-mic sign-up begins at 6:30 p.m., and the words begin to flow at 7. BACA is at 1275 Walnut St., Berkeley. 510-644-6893 or www.berkeleyartcenter.org -- Kelly Vance

Feed Me!

How a play about a sadistic dentist and a giant, carnivorous plant -- based on a 1960 Roger Corman gore-and-schlockfest -- ever earned a rep as "family fare" is beyond us. Maybe it's the catchy songs. Maybe it's the triumph of good over evil. Maybe it's the fact that kids are just so sassy nowadays. Regardless, Little Shop of Horrors is a Broadway classic, with its soul-singing Venus Flytrap, B-movie themes, and goofy romance between its nebbishy hero, Seymour, and a daffy damsel, Audrey. Steve Shearer directs, Todd Aragon choreographs, and Cary Litchford helms musical direction in the Pleasanton Playhouse production, opening Friday and playing Thursdays through Sundays through March 30. The playhouse is located at 1048 Serpentine Lane, Suite 309. 925-484-4486. -- Stefanie Kalem

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