Even at first glance, it seems like Grammy-nominated singer Sophie B. Hawkins was born to play Janis Joplin. The wild wavy long hair, the devil-may-care attitude and, of course, a raspy and incredibly powerful voice.
So when writer-producer Gigi Gaston asked Hawkins to play the legendary late singer in her new play, Room 105: The Highs and Lows of Janice Joplin, the singer literally jumped in feet first.
“I just had this feeling that is what I should do,” Hawkins says, holding an unlit cigarette and pushing back the late singer’s feather boa while on a break from rehearsals. “So first I went back to her inspirations -- Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, Big Momma Thornton -- and I learned to sing like those people. Then I started doing Janice. That was the shock, that she was a complete original."
While she was on her own tour, she’d tell her audiences, “I’m feeling a little Janice.” “I started asking for a bottle of Southern Comfort and I would sing Ball and Chain or Take Another Little Piece of My Heart, in the middle of the show. It felt so organic to me.”
What Hawkins also discovered is that she and Joplin had eerily similar backgrounds.
“Even though she grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, and I was in New York, we had the same families and many of the same demons. She was blocked from music, I was blocked from music. She left home very young. I ran away with my African drum teacher at 14. And we were both addicts. She was called 'Ugly Man' at her high school. They put up posters all over the school and she never got over that, feeling ugly. I was called other things, like 'Freak.'”
Joplin died of a drug overdose on Oct. 4, 1970, in room 105, at a low-rent hotel then known as the Landmark Motor Hotel (now the Beverly Garland). Gaston, who wanted to set the play in the room she died, went there to research and discovered a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.
“The hotel clerk told me that Janice’s friend from Texas stays there." Turned out Don Hoyt comes every year for the past 12 years and stays Oct. 3, 4, 5 and 6. So she contacted Hoyt and discovered a wealth of information about the late singer.
Sadly, Hoyt told Gaston that Joplin liked that particular room because it looked out on Franklin and she could look out the window and see where her drug dealer put her stuff. She didn’t want the dealer coming into the hotel. Hoyt also told her that her regular dealer was out that night and the stuff she bought from someone else was too strong for her.
He also described to Gaston how the closet door opens and shuts, lights go on and off and TV turns on in the middle of the nights he stays there to honor her memory. "He told me that she always had the TV on, couldn't stand the quiet."
Watching Hawkins morph into Joplin was amazing, according to the play’s costume designer Leslie Sank. “The costumes just look ‘60s on the rack but they look like Janis when Sophie puts them on.”
Sank and her costume partner Charlotte Forst searched vintage stores in New York and Los Angeles for original vests and jackets and even found the perfect black floppy hat that looks exactly like Joplin’s trademark chapeau.
They located crushed velvet (with a bit of modern Lycra stretch so Hawkins could move around the stage easier) for her period bell bottoms, Forst explains: “The bells then were very fluid, sexier and exaggerated back then.”
The designing duo found some tie-dye shirts and stocked up on peace-sign jewelry, large round purple shades, Indian scarves and feather boas that Janice loved. And bracelets. Lots and lots of bracelets. Sank reveals: "She loved wearing lots of bracelets on her arms, and the reason was that they covered her track marks.”
Hawkins says she has gotten so comfortable in Joplin’s style that she plans on taking all the costumes home when the play is over. This does not surprise Sank. “Our first shopping trip two months ago, we found these great bell-bottom jeans, very ‘60s. Sophie loved them so much, she wore them home, and I never saw them again. We are holding onto the costumes more closely now.”
Hawkins says a lot of Joplin’s friends and fans are planning to come to the play (it had previews on Oct. 4 and 5) that starts officially Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Macha Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood.
"I know her friend Don Hoyt and Peggy Caserta (Joplin’s girlfriend of many years) are coming, and I expect a lot of her friends will hear about it and come. Because you know who’s gonna be here, Janis. You know her spirit is here."
- Janis Joplin
- Gigi Gaston