Nancy Fowler – St Louis Public Radio, Feb 17, 2017
The story of a jazz a singer whose signature song drew attention to the brutal treatment of African-Americans will be on stage in St. Louis for the next two weeks.
Max and Louie Productions presents “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a drama about the iconic Billie Holiday. The setting is a fictional performance that takes place four months before her death.
The production includes a dozen of Holiday’s songs and a running commentary in which she looks back on her life of love, loss, addiction and struggle with racism.
To Alexis J. Roston, who plays Holiday, it’s a plum assignment.
“If you want to play somebody fierce, sassy, bold; I mean, it’s kind of like a dream role to play,” Roston said.
Holiday was born in Philadelphia in 1915 to a teenage mother. Her rough upbringing included being sexual assaulted at the age of 10. She sought comfort in the music of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
Later, as an entertainer in the Jim Crow era of legalized discrimination, Holiday couldn’t eat with the white musicians she performed with. She had to use a back entrance to many venues. In one momentous song, the jazz artist raged against the system, with her voice.
In 1939, Holiday was the first to record “Strange Fruit,” a stark yet lyrical song about lynchings of African-Americans in the South, adapted from a poem by Bronx writer Abel Meeropol.
Paige McGinley, a Washington University expert on 20th century entertainers, said the song wasn’t well-received by some of her fans.
“This song challenged the white audiences, even the very liberal white audiences,” McGinley said.
The tone is somber. The lyrics are shockingly graphic and include vivid imagery, such as:
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
“There have been debates over the years about how politically engaged Billie Holiday was or wasn’t,” McGinley said. “But I think the performance of Strange Fruit … places her in a legacy of black women, anti-lynching activists.”
During performances, just before Holiday launched into “Strange Fruit,” it was customary for everyone to cease activity. Waiters put down their trays and a narrow spotlight focused all eyes on the singer.
“And at the end of the song, she would leave the stage and the accompanist would play some sort of bridge to get the audience back into the café world, which had been temporarily suspended,” McGinley said.
‘Not going to let you know me’
Many fans of Billie Holiday feel they have an intimate relationship with the jazz star. But McGinley said her songs don’t necessarily reflect her life.
“The listener may think the emotions that she’s conveying in these songs and the things she’s talking about in her songs are from her direct experience, that there’s a one-to-one correlation between Billie Holiday’s performances and Billie Holiday the person,” McGinley said. “This is not necessarily the case.”
“T’Aint Nobody’s Business,” originally sung by Bessie Smith, is emblematic of the barrier Holiday may have put up between her and her audiences, McGinley said, illustrated by the following lyrics:
There ain’t nothin’ I can do, or nothin’ I can say
That folks don’t criticize me,
But I’m going to do just as I want to anyway,
And don’t care if you all despise me!
“Nobody’s business is about the rumors that were spread about the singer,” McGinley said. “It’s a song about, ‘You want to know me but I’m not going to let you know me.’”
‘Moments of joy’
Holiday tried to escape her daily existence with alcohol, then heroin. She died in 1959 at the age of 44, from cirrhosis of the liver.
But Leda Hoffmann, who directs the St. Louis production of “Lady Day,” said the singer’s life was more nuanced than these grim facts might indicate.
“Billy Holiday certainly found moments of joy. She loved hard. Her friendships, her relationships were incredible things in Billie Holiday’s story, that are full of joy,” Hoffman said. “And yet her life circumstances could be seen as incredibly tragic.”
Abdul Hamid Royal, musical director of the play written by Lanie Robertson, agreed that Holiday had a breadth of life experiences.
“If she were only sad, then it would be a sad play. If she had only been abused, then it would be tragic. If she were only looking for love in all the wrong places, that would be an issue,” Royal said. “
The thought of portraying such a storied performer might be intimidating. But for Alexis J. Roston, playing the legendary singer isn’t scary at all.
“I have a certain strength about me and I feel she had the same kind of strength,” Roston said. “And it just keeps that through-line of ‘I will be triumphant,’ no matter what, come what may.”