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Black, white and summer blues

by Lenise Willis

The year is 1959 and a hushed audience sips cocktails while waiting for the legendary Billie Holiday. As she opens her mouth to belt out a beautiful, smoky tune, all that matters is the music. No one is debating black-and-white equality or contemplating all the challenges the singer overcame to get on the stage. And no one knows that this will be one of her last performances.

The play, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, takes place in an intimate bar in South Philadelphia, where jazz legend Billie Holiday sings for a small audience. In between her hits, such as “God Bless the Child,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness,” she shares stories about the turbulent life she has led.

“I love this play,” said Maureen Daly, executive director of Twin City Stage, which will perform the production this weekend. “It’s an intimate evening of great music and fascinating storytelling and it has so much impact without being threatening. It’s the story of a woman who had amazing courage, overcame adversity and shared her gift with the world.”

To help bring Holiday’s legend alive, the production utilizes a live piano. Although the recent Broadway run added a percussion and bass, Daly said that she loves the simplicity of the single piano.

“I find it indicative of Billie Holiday’ s life, that this well-known, gifted artist by the end of her life and career is reduced to singing in a small dive with minimal support. She no longer has the big band behind her or Carnegie Hall. It’s just Billie and her music, which is perhaps the way it ought to be.”

Performing as the legend is Lalenja Harrington, an experienced gospel and a cappella singer and performer. She’s been in a number of local musicals, as well as a production about the black roots of vaudeville in Chicago, which was funded by the National Education Association and The Joyce Foundation.

“I have always connected with Billie’s music,” Harrington said. “She represents a very personal connection to the black experience during my grandparents’ era, so having the opportunity to play her gives me a unique opportunity to really embrace and live through that connection.

“I use my grandmother’s highball glass on stage to honor that connection, and I think her spirit helps to inform my performance. I am overjoyed to get to spend so much time with both of them during this show.”

To prepare for the role, Harrington listened to Billie Holiday’s music repeatedly and examined every example of her speech she could find. “I played around with where my voice and hers came together,” she said. “It has never been my intent to perfectly imitate her. I prefer for this to be more of a collaboration between artists. The audience will certainly recognize her trademark phrasing and vocal styling, but my voice will be present as well.”

“It’s great fun to work with Lalenja,” Daly said. “She has a wonderful, fearful voice and is an excellent actress. But most of all I appreciate, as a director, that she is honest to our vision and the script. She tries things, she discusses minute details and considers the whole world of the play, and she doesn’t shy away from the ugly.”

Harrington is without a doubt a dedicated actress and true Billie Holiday fan. In fact, some of her earliest musical collections were of Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, Etta James and the contemporary jazz duo, Tuck and Patti. “There is just something that has always resonated with me in the voices of these women,” she said. “My ear finds great pleasure in the fluidity and lyrical quality of (blues) singers, as well as the ingenious ways in which they manipulate musical phrases.”

She’s even written a poem about Billie Holiday called “When Billie Sings,” in an effort to capture what it is that she connects with. “The long and short of it,” she said, “is when Billie sings, it feels like home.” !

WANNA go?

Twin City Stage performs Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill for two nights only Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Hanesbrands Theatre, 209 N. Spruce St. Tickets are $50 for “cocktail lounge” seating, which includes a beverage of choice, or $30 for seats in the house. Billie Holiday will walk through the cocktail lounge area during the performance. For tickets and more information call 725-4001 or visit twincitystage.org.

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