Rosalind Early – St Louis Magazine, February 15, 2017
Is there a voice more iconic than Billie Holiday’s? One writer likened it to a “bruised purr.” Her phrasing often had her coming in on the tail end of a beat, as if she were perpetually holding back. In that hesitation and aching voice, Holiday summoned up a world of emotion: agony, defeat, joy, love, anger, devastation.
It is no small order to recreate that sound, but that was the challenge for Alexis J. Roston, the star of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, which is coming to the Kranzberg Arts Center February 17 through March 4. Roston plays a Billie Holiday (who was often called Lady Day) performing at her last concert in 1959. In a few months, Holiday will be dead, and as if suspecting this, she makes the most of her moment in the spotlight sharing stories from her life and singing songs she popularized.
Roston initially went out for Lady Day not quite knowing how to sing like Billie Holiday. She remembers getting the phone call that she got the role. “I thought, are you kidding?” she recalled in a Radio Arts Foundation interview. Three weeks before rehearsal began, Roston “shed” (musician speak for over-practicing).
“I decided OK, it’s time to just sit in with this music,” Roston says. She spent the time “just closing myself in with her… trying to capture all of her nuances.”
It worked. That show was in Chicago, and earned Roston a Jeff Award and a Black Theatre Alliance Award. Critics hailed her as “sensational.” “When Roston croons out Johnny Mercer’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman”: “goosebumps!” crowed the Huffington Post. Roston went on to play the role in Milwaukee, and now in St. Louis.
On stage with Roston is Abdul Hamid Royal, who plays pianist Jimmy Powers—a mashup character meant to represent many of the men in Holiday’s life. In the play, Powers is Holiday’s accompanist and musical director. In real life, Royal is the accompanist and musical director for the play. This is also Royal’s third time playing Powers.
“The challenge of this piece is to present it in its integrity, to really read the words and find out what the author is trying to say,” Royal says. Holiday’s life was full of tragedy (failed marriages, alcoholism, and drugs) and it has become the predominant story of her life—maybe due to the pain etched in her voice when she sings. But her story was also one of triumph, she was, after all, one of the most popular jazz singers of her day.
For Roston, remembering that triumph is the key to channeling Holiday. “I choose to pick the things about her life that were joyous and the things that we admired most about her,” Roston said in a recent interview. “There’s a reason we’re still talking about her. It’s because she’s iconic. She was full of love.”