Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story at the Belfry Theatre. A review.

I sit, mesmerized, eyes closing, as “Big Mama” (Jackie Richardson) sings the slowest, most heart-felt rendition of Summertime I have ever heard, seeming to tease my very soul from its body.

Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story, a Belfry Theatre/National Arts Centre co-production, is a blues musical feast, exposing Victoria audiences to an often under-appreciated stalwart of the 1950s-1980s blues scene.

I am a blues fan, but, unfortunately, my sense of blues history and foundation is sadly lacking. Big Mama definitely helped to fill in the gaps.

Big Mama 7936Jackie Richardson in Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story  with band members (L to R) Ron Casat, Andy Graffiti, Bill Johnson photo by Tim Matheson

Willie Mae Thornton began singing in her father’s Montgomery, Alabama Baptist Church and was already touring at the age of 14. She went on to sign with Peacock Records in 1951.  Did you know that the chart-topping hit Hound Dog, later made popular by Elvis Presley, was actually written for her?  Or that Ball and Chain (familiar to many as sung by rock star Janis Joplin) was her composition?

Willie Mae’s life was never easy.  Segregated as much by race as by gender, she persevered through years of touring, her career gradually declining, to regain favour in the late 1960s with the British Invasion and the subsequent spin-off from their passion for the blues. She travelled to Europe and headlined on the blues festival circuit throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Big Mama is a small slice of her life, Christmas Eve, 1970 in some no-name “juke joint”, replete with fake wood panelling and twinkling lights. You can practically feel the smoke in the air of this fabulous re-creation by set designer Carole Klemm.

Playwright Audrei-Kairen Kotaska wrote the musical specifically for Canadian jazz legend and actress Jackie Richardson.

Backed by a well-seasoned trio of session musicians – including Juno nominee Bill Johnson, Ron Casat and Andy Graffiti, Richardson commands the stage. Tender, passionate, raunchy and wise, she channels “Big Mama”.  Dressed in her typical costume of slacks, plaid checked shirt and bowler the resemblance is uncanny.

Richardson creates a warm space and wraps us in her big voice, easily connecting with the audience as she shares vignettes and anecdotes (some funny, many tragic) from Big Mama’s colourful life.  Biographical dramas can be challenging, and a biographical musical adds the additional element of maintaining the essence of the performer, without being a carbon copy.  Richardson and her trio found this balance easily.

Such is her presence that for “Sassy Mama” she was able to entice three audience members onstage for some impromptu sashaying, much to everyone’s delight.

Why do the blues cut across cultural lines to speak to us, even in prevailingly white Victoria?  “Because sometimes the cure for the snake bite is the venom”. Faced with the vagaries, disappointments and tragedies of life, there is always the blues to remind us of the truly important.

Big Mama says, “The blues ain’t nothing but life, simple life. It’s also about the joy of good food, good times and good sex. So go out there, and get you some of each!”

And Richardson then launched into a spirited version of Wang Dang Doodle  that had the audience clapping and singing “all night long” in call-response fashion, pitching us higher and higher, to bring us down to whispers as she abandoned microphone to sit on the stage’s edge and, in a supremely meta-theatrical moment (the Belfry Theatre began life as a Baptist Church), conducted “the choir”.

The circle was complete!

Part concert, part history-lesson, part jam-session, Big Mama! joins the Belfry tradition of blockbuster summer hits (Mom’s the Word, Ride the Cyclone, Billy Bishop Goes to War).  If you’re a blues fan, you won’t want to miss it. If you are not yet a blues fan, here’s the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in some soulful tunes for a hot night out. You won’t be disappointed.

Learn more about Big Mama, Willie Mae Thornton and her discography here.

Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story at the Belfry Theatre

July 24th – August 19th

 Creative Team

Playwright Audrei-Kairen
Starring Jackie Richardson with Bill Johnson (guitar), Ron Casat (piano) and Andy Graffiti (drums).
Director John Cooper
Musical Director Ron Casat
Designer Carole Klemm
Lighting Designer Martin Conboy
Costume Designer Karen Levis
Stage Manager Kim Charleen Smith
Assistant Stage Manager Sandra McEwing

The Belfry’s Season Sponsors are Thrifty Foods, Times Colonist, Cook’s Day Off, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Province of BC, BC Arts Council, CRD Arts Development.

Tickets $25 to $40 (plus HST) at 250-385-6815 or online at

Performance Schedule (July 24 – August 19, 2012)
Tuesdays – Saturdays at 8 pm
Wednesday Matinees at 1 pm (August 1 & 8)
Saturday Matinees at 4 pm
Sunday Matinees at2 pm

 Disclaimer:  I was offered complimentary tickets to attend the opening night of this play. I was not paid to write a review nor was I required to do so. As always, I retain editorial control over all the content published on this blog

About @lacouvee

Community Builder. Catalyst. Speaker. Writer. Arts Advocate.

Passionate about bridging online and offline communities to effect positive change.

I truly believe that one person can make a difference and that we all have our own lives to live, creatively, while respecting the unique nature of others.


  1. Ben Ziegler says

    Good review Janis. Guess I won’t need the program next week, when I take in this show. 🙂

    I like the blues, too. Listen to CBC’s Holger Peterson (Saturday night blues show whenever I can. You mention the show is part history lesson…. With the blues’ roots in slavery, one (or at least I do) feels something oh so powerful with the music, knowing its beginnings. And I’m sure that message comes across loud and clear with Jackie R. Can’t wait.

  2. John Carswell says

    A video clip from Big Mama!

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