These words set the essence of the jazz legend known as Ms. Billie Holiday, affectionately referred to as “Lady Day”. Her life is remembered as full, adventurous, tumultuous and troubled but it was through her music, her lyrics that she became free.
In the ever-evolving scope of music, the most authentic contributors prove iconic and legendary. Even in death, the music lives and somehow recaptures those moments in time. The connection between the artist, their music and lyrics gravitate to the listener’s soul and resonates in a way a trend or gimmick never could.
Billie Holiday was that kind of artist who captured you. From her vocal ability to her sultry presentation, she showcased life in its glory and gloom. When she stepped into the spotlight and released vocals so distinctive, you were automatically drawn to her and taken in to any story and emotion she was ready to release.
“Billie Holiday had such a gift. When she walked in a room, all eyes were on her. She had that about her,” says singer and actress Alexis J. Rogers. “Music was her life. That’s what illuminated her.”
Rogers, a musical theater veteran, is currently starring as the complex but legendary jazz musician Billie Holiday, in Porchlight Music Theater’s production, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” through March 10, 2013. Written by Lanie Robertson, with direction from Rob Lindley and musical direction by Jaret Landon, the intimate production is set in Philadelphia and takes place during the final months of Holiday’s life.
Why Philadelphia? Not only was this the place she was born but it also symbolized a space of vulnerability. “That’s the place that she was arrested for possession of narcotics and she talks about how every time she came to Philly, the cops and detectives were always after her. So the fact that she is placed in that city, Philadelphia, that makes it even more a time of vulnerability for her,” Rogers informs.
To reach connection with a place that caused such controversy, Rogers had to acquaint herself with all that had took place in Holidays life span. She had to work her to way to vulnerable.
“I like to think that because of what she had to experience every time she was in Philly, I feel like she is saying to them, one: this is what you helped make of me. You see where I am. You see what I’m enduring. You see what I’m struggling with. You helped to carve this out. This is part of your doing. I’m part of your creation. Also, it’s a wave of her being her own self so that she could conquer this particular monster that has always plagued her and scared her and given her such hard times. It’s a way of her overcoming them.”
Though Rogers has grand experience in theater performances such as a lead role in the historically popular Porgy & Bess, along with credits in Dreamgirls and Regina Taylor’s Crowns, she admits that there was a bit of fear she had to overcome when taking on her current role.
“There was some fear about me being able to give this artist her justice. She had her very own unique speaking voice, let alone singing voice,” Alexis acknowledges. “I can play young and sassy, but can I play this older “diva” that not only was able to evoke such passion in the her singing but who is able to win a crowd? Can I become that, this stunner?”
She adds, “I knew the past and I knew what it would be about emotionally, mentally, and somewhat physically and again, a little bit of fear crept in but it was a challenge and as an artist you always want to keep yourself challenged.”
According to recent reviews, notably the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Theater Beat, Alexis J. Rogers’ fear should be no more. As their analysis and review tell it, the Tribune stated, “Not only does Rogers sound like Holiday, she captures her power, discipline, free spirit and aching vulnerability … ” while CTB complimented stating, Rogers “sings the blues magnificently”.
Holiday was idolized for her signature style and wooing persona. As observers, her life appeared controversial. Through nightly and worldly performances, audiences indulged her but when the stage lights faded to black, one would imagine a life of pain. Her songs proved to be her recollections of experiences. In what would ultimately be one of her final performances, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is the story seen through Billie’s eyes and told using her words.
Opening the show on a “high” with a drink in hand and arm revealing heroine track marks, Alexis transforms into Holiday completely. She performs the songs that we love intertwining them with oftentimes hard to hear testimonials of her life, first love and life-threatening addiction. The music carries her through it all.
“You’ll hear in the play several times that singing was living for her. She was so drawn to this music and people always say: aww that sounds so sad, well that’s because anytime that she would sing anything, it was something that had to relate to her life.”
Slipping into character in our conversation, Rogers speaks about the way Billie was introduced to and involved in drugs.
“One of her first loves, Jimmy Monroe, introduced her to heroine and the way he brought it to her is what got her,” Alexis begins. “He said that nobody had ever, loved him enough to try a little bit of a hit or two with him. And she does say, “Well, I’ll try some but I won’t try heroine.” He told her, ‘hey nobody that wouldn’t try would know what it’s like for him’. And because she loved him so much, she went ahead so that he would know that it was one person in the world that loved him.”
The impression that love can have on one’s heart can be so disheartening.
Regardless of the torment she had experienced as a young girl being raped, getting caught up in prostitution and watching her grandmother die in her arms at the age of 10, Rogers states that Holiday never looked at herself nor her life in a sad way. Even when it came to the drug abuse, “she looked at [the situation as] ‘those are things I had to do and that was my path.’”
Billie’s modem operandi was to “laugh in the face of adversity. You can clearly tell that she was a jokester and that, though, the subject matter might have been heavy, she laughed it off. She laughed at life.”
Lyrics flutter like butterflies releasing from the soul over a bed of synchronized melodies. When in tune with what is being sung, the emotion is poignant. Music was this for Lady Day. It was her coping medicine. It was her truth rather ugly or beautiful.
A distinct moment in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is the chilling performance of ‘Strange Fruit.’ The power of this song was described by late jazz writer, Leonard Feather as being, “a significant protest in words and music – the first un-muted cry against racism.”
The lyrics read:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees …
Roger comments, “She said in her biography that every time she sung it, she literally felt sick. She’d always have to go straight to the bathroom directly after that song because it took such a toll on her and I think that me being African American and having the pictures and images out of singing that song, you go there.”
Through Holiday’s realism in music, she brought something special. Her all was given in song.
“She wouldn’t sing it if she couldn’t feel it. Singing is the way you feel. And like when she was in prison, the girls always wanted her to sing something. For her, she couldn’t sing in that place because of how she felt. She felt dead. So, she said, ‘hey, you ever heard a dead person sing?’ I can’t sing in here.’ Music and singing were those things that fueled her. That was her way of escape,” says Rogers.
Porchlight Theater’s production is 90 minutes of singing and sharing with the set being split between her dressing room and the venue stage. She gives the audience the songs they long to hear but in the interim, she’s showing and sharing her roots on throughout her demise. It’s raw, emotional and dynamic.
“I want people to walk away knowing one, who this woman was and what she was about. Not feeling sad for her but knowing that she always had hope in her eyes and hope in her heart. She didn’t sing her songs and live her life like it was sad; she lived life to the fullest,” Rogers emphasizes.
“Billie Holiday is one of the best voices we ever will hear in jazz and she paved a way for people to do exactly what feels right for them. I want us to live our lives to the fullest like Ms. Billie Holiday did.”
The regular run schedule is Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 for previews and $39 for all other performances. Groups of ten or more may receive discounts on tickets purchased via the Groups Sales office at 773-777-9884. Single tickets for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill are on sale now and may be purchased at stage773.com or by phone at 773.327.5252.