‘Lady Day’ transports audiences to a 1950s Philadelphia jazz club for Billie Holiday’s final performance – WABE
When legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday sang the opening notes of “strange fruit,“The waiters stopped serving and silence immediately fell over the audience.
After finishing the song, Billie Holiday left the stage with nothing left and the crowd burst into applause. She shamelessly sang the song for 20 years until her untimely death at 44. Atlanta favorite and Broadway star Terry Burrel takes on the role of Billie Holiday in Theatrical outfit still producing “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”
She joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom with director Eric J. Little to talk about their new iteration of “Lady Day” and the tragic life of its brilliant namesake.
Highlights of the interview follow below.
Holiday’s most dangerous song:
“I like the specificity of the ‘trees of the South’. It’s very specific about this guy, because of what was going on in history at that time, and thinking about today, what’s going on when it comes to black people and the police or black people at the time lynched,” Little said. “For me, I think that was what was so powerful about the song because it was the truth. It was bold, and it was in your face, and it was something you couldn’t And then just her powerful voice and the way she sang it – it’s very haunting and beautiful at the same time.
“The FBI got involved and wanted her to stop singing that song, and then they made it really hard for her to be able to perform it. And sometimes she performed it out of defiance,” Burrell said. haunted her. They found every excuse in the book to try to catch him using drugs. She continued, “She was betrayed by people very close to her, like her agent…He felt that if she was arrested, she wouldn’t have access to drugs, and he wanted her to get better, but the cost to her, in her eyes, was devastating. A year and a day in prison, and she was arrested all over the country.
How Burrell was inspired by family history:
“She’s also a woman who traveled down south to perform and was often treated very badly. I mean, she had to come through the back door. She had to eat in the kitchen and she was the star. of the show,” Burrell said. “When I’m on stage and I sing this song every night, it reminds me of the stories that my uncle, who grew up in the South and is still alive today in his 90s, shared with me just a few years ago. from. And hearing that come out of his mouth made that very real to me.
“My uncle told me this particular story, that when he was a little boy, his father took him into the woods to a place called ‘The Hammer.’ And on the trees there were still burn marks from where the Klan was taking black men there for some kind of offense – I don’t know what. They were literally beating them, and they were pouring hot tar on their skin , and then dump feathers on it,” Burrell recounted. “Now I’m listening to him say that to me in a very factual way, and he said the scariest part, again, was that he looked up and saw his father pointing to the burn marks that were still there.”
Other musical moments from “Lady Day:”
” The most famous [was] “God bless the child,” which she wrote when her mother refused to help her at a time when she really needed help,” Burrell said. “And it always irritated her mother because she knew Billie wrote it for her.”
“And of course, ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, you know, just the beat of that one alone, the opening number. ‘All I know is I’m in love with you…’ ‘I wonder where our love has gone.’ It’s just lovely, and it’s kind of a love sonnet, even to the audience, because by the time you meet her at the top of the show, it’s five months before her death, while life wasn’t the best for her,” Burrell continued. “Oh, ‘Give me a pig’s foot.’ I like it because she, you know, she always wanted to imitate the Louis Armstrong horn playing and the Bessie Smith sound – the big sound, but her voice wasn’t like that. So between the two of them, she sort of developed Billie Holiday.
The Theatrical Outfit’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” production is on stage at the Balzer Theater in Herren’s through June 26. Tickets and more information are available at www.theatricaloutfit.org/shows/lady-day-22.