July 29th, 2017
“Bein’ arrested in this country,”….that’s a coloured folks’ tradition”
As I enter, Christopher Oram’s bar designs transform Wyndham theatre. The front rows of the stalls have been taken out and replaced with cabaret tables, and there is a bar onstage, with seating for more of the audience.
The play’s conceit is that we are watching Holiday perform in a north Philadelphia dive in 1959, a few months before her death at the age of only 44. Lanie Robertson’s play is essentially a one woman show. I was spellbound from the moment Audra McDonald arrives as the troubled jazz and blues singer, Billie Holiday on stage, cocooned in white, stumbling, whether tipsy or drug induced. In role, she drinks, she swears and she rambles, occasionally monitored and cajoled gently to sing by the pianist, Jimmy (Shelton Becton). Macdonald inhabits Holliday’s posture, the tilt of the head and the delicious, sumptuous, smoky voice which is spellbinding. At one stage, she re-enters, clutching a tumbler of booze or her beloved Chihuahua, Pepi, then stumbles about the platform and, in one heart-stopping moment, slips off it.
Amongst a full repertoire, we are given Halliday’s signature song, “ God Bless the Child” which was written for her mother who she call The Duchess; “Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do”, a grim justification of her right to self-destruct; and for me that heart-stopping lament for black victims of lynchings, “Strange Fruit” is particularly haunting.
Though the script isn’t brilliant, there are flashes of humour in Lonny Price’s production. It is Audra MacDonald’s commanding performance of the Halliday’s wrecked life that makes you forgive any weaknesses in the writing. Throughout the 90 minute performance we learn how Holiday was born illegitimately, Eleanora Fagan in 1915, exploited by managers, boyfriends and husbands from the beginning to the end. Her early days revolved around an absent father, a prostitute mother and being sexually abused. She was in prison by the time she was 14 and later, her New York cabaret card is revoked, limiting her opportunities to perform. Not surprisingly, her life is charged with racism: even at the peak of her stardom she wasn’t permitted to eat alongside her white band in a restaurant dining room. “I knew a nice white person once,” she remarks. One story about trying to use the toilet facilities in a whites-only establishment while on tour with the Artie Shaw Band is as hilarious as it is chilling.
Unless you’re a musical theatre devotee, Audra McDonald is probably the biggest star you’ve never heard of. My daughter is an aficionado, so I was grateful for the recommendation. MacDonald holds the record for six Tony awards, two Grammys and an Emmy. An accolade she certainly deserves especially when you consider her ability to transform from a classically trained soprano to a jazz-soloist.