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‘Lady Day’ Examines the Tortured Life of Jazz Great Billie Holiday

  • Francesca Harper stars in JAG Productions' staging of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," now in performance at the Engine Room in White River Junction. (Courtesy JAG Productions)

  • Billie Holiday by Herman Leonard. Gelatin silver print, 1949. MUST CREDIT: Copyright Herman Leonard Photography, LLC



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2018

Billie Holiday, the legendary black jazz singer, didn’t care much for Philadelphia. It was where she was tried and convicted for drug possession, which led to prison time, which led to her losing her New York City cabaret card — a blow to her livelihood from which she did not recover. It was also where she was born.

In 1959, Holiday returned to the City of Brotherly Love, specifically to a dive bar called Emerson’s Bar and Grill, for a gig. She dressed in white, slipped on some long fingerless gloves and slowly approached the microphone. Four months later, at the age of 44, she would be dead.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Lanie Robinson’s 1986 play with music, re-imagines one of Holiday’s final performances. The play, currently in performance through JAG Productions, is rich with the singer’s signature songs: God Bless the Child, Crazy He Calls Me, Strange Fruit and the rest. Between numbers, she chats up the audience, her monologues by turns charming, salty, rambling and raw.

Lady Day opened Thursday at the Engine Room in White River Junction, where it will play through the weekend before moving to South Pomfret’s Grange Theatre, and then to Burlington.

“I always loved and admired the play,” said Jarvis Antonio Green, ever since he saw Audra McDonald star in it on Broadway in 2014, a performance for which she won her sixth Tony Award.

Green, who is JAG’s founder and artistic director, was interested in directing the production in part because he was interested in the “technical aspects” of its smallness: Holiday and her piano accompanist, Jimmy Powers (the exquisitely talented Nygel Robinson) are the only two named characters in the play’s small cast.

He wanted to establish an explicit dialogue between Holiday’s life and larger systems of racism by “priming the audience with clippings of contemporary black trauma,” including the deaths of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, before ticket-holders even enter the theater, he said. Once they do, they’ll hear audio recordings of famous black voices of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, “as if they’re having a conversation in the room.”

But Green was also interested in Lady Day’s exploration of blackness from a female perspective. In the past, JAG has presented narratives of black men, at times exploring LGBT themes through that lens. “So when I was thinking about this season … I knew I wanted to be sensitive (to) and inclusive of female-identified stories,” he said.

Green has long felt there is a quality of “sound therapy” to Holiday’s voice. But until recently, he didn’t know many of the gritty details of the her background story. “As I started use the play as a vehicle to learn more about her life,” he came to appreciate that even after years of hard drugs and heavy alcohol use took their toll on Holiday’s voice, “the emotion was always there,” he said.

And in many ways, the story of Holiday’s voice is also the story of her life.

Born Eleanora Fagan in 1915 to a 13-year-old mother — her father, who wasn’t much older was nowhere in the picture until after his daughter became famous — Holiday grew up largely in Baltimore and endured an unstable childhood. While trying to make ends meet, her mother, Sadie, would leave Eleanora in the care of various relatives, some of whom allegedly hit her. Eleanora started skipping school, so often that she appeared before a juvenile court at age 9. At 10, she was raped by a neighbor, then shipped off to a Catholic reform school for black girls. At 11, she dropped out of school completely.

She got a job scrubbing floors at a local brothel, where there was a record player she liked to listen to. Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong were her favorites. Sometimes she sang along.

For Francesca Harper, who plays Holiday, the role is both familiar and new. New, because Harper is new to singing; she’s primarily a dancer and choreographer, whose list of accomplishments in this field includes founding her own production company in New York City.

Because of this training, “I have to learn everything in my body,” she said during an early rehearsal, as she and Green were nailing down the way she shimmied when she sang. She closed her eyes for a couple seconds, concentrating. “OK.”

But Harper also doesn’t have to tap too deep into her own experiences to feel at home in Holiday’s shoes. Like the singer, Harper was devastated when her mother died. Like Harper, Holiday’s father — Clarence Halliday, sometimes spelled Holiday — had bad lungs.

“I keep finding these connections and parallels,” Harper marveled, after rehearsal that day. Like Green, she admired Holiday’s artistic legacy, but didn’t know the full story behind it. “I mean, I’m probably looking for connections, but they’re still there.”

Some other notable connections: They both started singing during rocky periods of their lives, ostensibly as a way to help cope. In Harper’s case, “after my mother died and I was at one of my darkest points … a voice came to me and told me I have to sing,” she said. “I have no (expletive) idea why. I have chills just telling you.”

And, more than 60 years after Holiday’s heyday, Harper has experienced the injustices of being a black woman in America, and in the performing arts. This was especially true for Holiday after her 1939 performance of Strange Fruit, a graphic anti-lynching ballad that stirred early civil-rights sentiments among listeners. The head of the Federal Board of Narcotics — Henry Anslinger, an extreme racist even for his time who thought jazz was “Satanic” and that marijuana made blacks think they were equal to whites — had it out for Holiday: He assigned his drug agents to trail her and bust her for possession, and continued to target her until her death, even after her career was in shambles.

“It’s been really intense,” Harper said of portraying someone whose life was wrecked by racism, among other factors. “We have such armor as people. We pack it all in.” The role has required her, at times, to feel things she would prefer to keep at a distance. Earlier in the week, she’d had what she called “kind of a breakdown.”

It was a particular line in the script that did her in: Okay, Jimmy. Okay. He wants me to sing a song I wrote for my mom, the Duchess. She wasn’t no real Duchess of course, ’cause we don’t got any black or colored Duchess. Not in this world.

“I couldn’t believe how painful that was,” she said. Growing up, she felt there were no “powerful, glamorous, inspirational images” of women who looked like her. Revisiting that realization made her break down in tears, she said. “There was no black Duchess.”

A couple years after quitting school, Eleanora moved to Harlem to be with Sadie, who’d been doing sex work there at the time. Eleanora soon picked up the trade, and both were arrested during a bust. Six months later, fresh out of prison and penniless, Eleanora tried out as a dancer (another connection to Harper) at a speakeasy. As she recalled later in an interview with DownBeat Magazine:

One day we were so hungry we could barely breathe. It was cold as all hell and I walked from 145th to 133rd (Street) … going in every joint trying to find work … I stopped in the Log Cabin Club run by Jerry Preston (and) told him I was a dancer. He said to dance. I tried it. He said I stunk. I told him I could sing. He said sing. Over in the corner was an old guy playing the piano. He struck ‘Trav’lin’ (All Night)’ and I sang. The customers stopped drinking. They turned around and watched. The pianist swung into ‘Body and Soul.’ Jeez, you should have seen those people — all of them started crying. Preston came over, shook his head and said, ‘Kid, you win.’

Billie Holiday — named for the actress Billie Dove and the father she’d never known — was born.

She got her big break one night at a Harlem speakeasy. The major music producer John Hammond, who had gone to hear a better-known singer, was floored by Holiday’s inimitable phrasing and timbre, and declared her the best jazz singer he’d ever heard. He arranged for Holiday to record with the influential Benny Goodman, and the rest was musical history. She became the first black singer to front an all-white big band, Artie Shaw’s no less. She became, after years of hard luck, one of the highest-paid performers of her time.

Hard luck kept haunting her, though, in the form of abusive husbands and lovers, cruel tabloids, the open racism of the music industry and justice system. When Sadie died, in her early 40s, Holiday’s depression got even worse.

There may not have been a black Duchess, but Holiday did, in her own broken way, project a certain image of glamour. She draped herself in furs and diamonds, dressed in sweeping gowns, and was known for pinning a white gardenia in her hair. In Lady Day, the script calls for long, fingerless gloves. But behind this stylish veneer was the grim reality of her life: The gloves were to cover the track marks all over her arms.

And so the artistic challenge, for someone playing Holiday, is how to negotiate the glamour and the darkness.

At rehearsal, Harper and Green gave great consideration to the little details that quietly betray this darkness: the way the singer might have held her arms after shooting up with heroin before her performance; the hungry-eyed way she might have sipped her cocktails between sets.

“I want (the audience) to feel that alcohol and heroin story in their bodies,” Green said. He wanted it to dawn on them gradually just how deep Holiday’s demons ran.

Compared to someone like Ella Fitzgerald, Holiday’s range wasn’t very large at all; if she went too high she got tinny, if she went too low she almost croaked. But she is known for her phrasing, and the way she would bend a song’s notes and manipulate its rhythm to make it her own.

But at 44, her voice wasn’t the same voice that captivated John Hammond and launched a thousand nightclub gigs. At the very end, a brittle, sandpapery quality crept into her once-velvety timbre. Harper does not try to copy this voice too closely in Lady Day. Her performance seems to have settled on a compromise: beautiful, but not too beautiful.

“No one can be her,” she said, “so I don’t try. I try to do her justice, but … I try to make it my own.”

Four months after her performance at Emerson Bar and Grill, Holiday was admitted to the hospital with liver cirrhosis, her body corroded by the harsh, acerbic solutions of alcohol and loneliness. Anslinger’s men came for her one last time. They confiscated the small amount of heroin they found and handcuffed her to the bed. She died in those bonds.

“We shouldn’t have let this happen,” said Green. In his view, there were countless complicit parties in Holiday’s self-destruction. The wealthy donors who offered to fund the burial they felt she deserved, the thousands of people who attended her funeral service, every person who ever made a profit off of her — where, Green wants to know, were they when she was alive?

“We need to take better care of people,” he said. “We should have saved her.”

In the end, it was her last abusive and by-then estranged husband, Louis McKay, who would have the final word. The obvious choice for a final resting place would have been Woodlawn Cemetery, where such jazz greats as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton were all laid to rest. Instead, he had her buried next to her mother Sadie, way out in the Bronx, in an unmarked grave.

JAG Productions stages Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill tonight at 7:30 at the Engine Room in White River Junction, and Sunday afternoon at 4. After this weekend the production moves to the Grange Theatre in South Pomfret, playing Thursday through June 3. For show times, go to jagproductionsvt.com. For tickets ($35) and more information, call the box office at 802-332-3270.

Due to language and some disturbing content, the play may not be suitable for some audiences.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.