Kyra Gordon has been scheming to play Janis Joplin for a very long time.
As a teenage runaway trying to find acting work in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, she heard about “Piece of My Heart,” a Joplin biopic planned by Paramount.
“I begged my agent to get me an audition, and he beat them into submission,” says Gordon, who was about 17 years old at the time. “I got to sing a couple of the pieces, but I think they were always going to go with a ‘name.’”
The studio ended up casting Brittany Murphy. The film never got made.
Years later, Gordon, the first vocalist to earn a bachelor’s degree from the California Jazz Conservatory, has decided to cast herself as Joplin in “Loving Janis,” which premieres Friday, March 23, at Ashkenaz in Berkeley.
With the 50th anniversary of Joplin’s star-making performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival still reverberating, Gordon’s show is timely, but she’s added an intriguing twist to the production.
“Loving Janis” also encompasses the music of a very different figure who gained fame in 1967, the often-overlooked singer-songwriter Janis Ian.
Joplin’s death from a heroin overdose in the fall of 1970 ended her brief, meteoric run at 27 with her posthumous hit album “Pearl.” At 66, Ian is still deeply engaged in writing songs, as well as sci-fi short stories.
Given their disparate trajectories and musical output, Joplin and Ian might seem like an odd couple. For Gordon, that’s a feature, not a bug.
“There’s a yin and yang thing with them,” she says. “Janis Ian is such a masterly writer. The songs stand on their own. With Joplin, it’s more about wringing out the emotional washcloth.”
Ian first made her mark as a preciously gifted 14-year-old in 1965, when she wrote and recorded “Society’s Child,” a song about a young interracial couple ripped apart by prejudice. It didn’t attract much attention until Leonard Bernstein featured the track on his 1967 CBS-TV special “Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution,” a boost that helped turn the song into a hit, though some radio stations refused to play it.
At a creative crest for adventurous singer-songwriters, she broke through again with 1975’s No. 1 album “Between the Lines,” which includes the Grammy Award-winning single “At Seventeen” (a song she performed on the debut broadcast of “Saturday Night Live”).
A keyboardist and prolific singer-songwriter herself, Gordon opens “Loving Janis” with a set of songs by Ian, followed by a Joplin set. “There will be a costume change,” she says, noting that at the conclusion of the show she’ll evoke both Janises “to bring some closure.”
Adding to the period feel, pioneering liquid light show artist Kitty Crowe will be handling projections.
While Gordon was born nearly a generation after the Summer of Love, her peripatetic path would fit right into that footloose era. Hailing from a family of musicians, she hit the road after her L.A. acting sojourn didn’t pan out and ended up spending four years in Zendik, a commune in North Carolina and later West Virginia.
After a year of singing in Paris, she landed back in the Bay Area and started to focus intently on music, studying piano with Rebeca Mauleón and Frederick Harris.
Initially reluctant to pursue a music degree because she was older than most undergrads, Gordon ended up finding an ideal fit at the California Jazz Conservatory.
In a lovely Janis convergence, she’s setting up a shrine to Joplin in Ashkenaz next to a table for the Pearl Foundation, which provides scholarships to help women re-enter school. Ian created the foundation in honor of her mother, Pearl, who earned college degrees late in life.
Andrew Gilbert is a freelance writer.