Revisiting the amazing Billie Holiday as she graces a Seattle theater

By Jalayna Carter
July 17, 2018

Billie Holiday

“Lady Day” is wrapped in a pristine white floor-length gown as she graces the stage of Emerson’s Bar and Grill, the fictional set location of this 1986 play by Lanie Robertson. Produced by ArtsWest, the embodied Billie Holiday, played by Felicia Loud, shares with us memories of her life in between the songs she is paid to perform this night.

We gain insight into Holiday’s life by way of the musings of a woman with much to say and few who will listen. Loud has her dreads braided into a low graceful bun, taking pride in the heritage that the late great Lady Day was often asked to leave at the door. Bare shoulders sit atop elbow length gloves, calling on the beauty of Holliday’s triumphs to outshine the dark places she’ll eventually take us over the course of the evening.

Born in 1915 in Philadelphia, Holiday grew up using music to escape from her disappointing childhood. This escapism continued into adulthood, eventually developing into an addiction. She passed away in 1959, at the age of 44, suffering from cirrhosis and the residue of a battered and bruised life. With no formal training – she never learned to read sheet music – she still made a career out of singing and moved thousands with her talent. Her voice earned her a spot in the history of American music as an influential member in the development of jazz.

With a portfolio of songs like Gloomy Sunday that call upon such strong emotions as yearning and distress, it’s clear that Holiday’s work continues to stoke the sentimentality of both new and fervent fans alike. Loud’s performance pays homage to the artist in a way that refrains from softening the sharp edges, instead inviting us to indulge in her excesses. On stage, Loud’s voice cuts through the air with ease. There’s a beauty to her singing that changes shape in regular conversation, given how many times the word “bitch” is uttered.

Holiday banters with her pianist, Jimmy Powers, who deftly keeps up when she changes songs mid-run. Temperamental as she is, she’s gracious enough to give us an aside about how terribly inconvenient it is when the nightclub owners who book her insist that she sings her hits rather than letting her perform what she feels like. Many of the pieces she sings, she wrote with specific people in mind.

Before her rendition of God Bless the Child and Somebody’s On My Mind, Lady Day tells us about her mother who influenced the pieces and how tormented she was by both their relationship and her mother’s death, a death she never got to mourn. These suppressed emotions find their way on stage with Loud skillfully blurring the lines between an alcohol- and drug-infused confessional and a sobering moment of reckoning.

Loud takes ownership of the space, doing so much with so little. At one point she descends from the steps to sashay through the small cabaret tables and re-establish the intimate relationship with her audience. We are her friends after all and we get the privilege of laying eyes on all the glamour as well as the savage candor that she brings to the stage. Her words slur a bit more as she hounds Jimmy Powers for the signature magnolia flower that frequently decorates her hair.

The lighting changes to an iridescent blue and pink. Holiday takes us through the furor of disrespect she suffered in her 44 years of life: from loving a man who couldn’t see past his own love of hard drugs to urinating in the middle of a room before a performance from being denied the white-only restrooms. The moment we realize that she is at the point of no return comes when she bellows a heart-wrenching delivery of these lines from T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do:

“I swear I won’t call no copper
If I’m beat up by my papa
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do”

She is just about done.

Over the course of 90 minutes, we see what brings Billie joy as well as what makes her rage from the inside out. We see how she escapes from the outhouse of growing up a black woman in America in the earlier half of the 1900’s. As assured as Loud came onto the stage, she ends the night with the same fortitude and a single spotlight. Like Holiday, she doesn’t need anything more.