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Sunday, October 08, 2017

Education on the impact of racism- Billie Holiday


In the program, Director Kevin R. Free wrote an insightful message.  Rather than publish a list of his theatrical credits, Free reprinted segments from a personal story that underscores how Billie Holiday's life was important.  I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, but did not realize how Ms. Holiday was raised in the city.  In the play, her character describes some of what it was like during a time when the Negroes were sequestered and prevented from activities that promoted social integration. "I was raped when I was 10 years old, but that wasn't the worst that happened...."is one gripping line in the play. Although the wonderful music transcends the depths of Ms. Holiday's darkest stories, her dialogue rips though the story like the sound of a sheet being torn into rags.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is a play with music by Lanie Robertson, recounting some events in the life of the singer and songwriter, Billie Holiday. The play originally premiered in 1986 at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, and soon played Off-Broadway. The play opened on Broadway in 2014. We were fortunate to have seen it performed at the Portland Stage, with Tracey Conyer Lee acting and singing the lead role of Billie Holiday.
"Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill" is a powerful performance showcasing the poetic talent of the singer and songwriter Billie Holiday (1915-1959)- she was born Eleanora Fagan, in Philadelphia but raised most of her youth in Baltimore, Maryland. Her story was superbly performed by Tracy Conyer Lee, at the Portland Stage, a theater in Portland Maine. 

"Lady Day" is first, and foremost a tribute to Billie Holiday's personal courage; and a repertoire of her music, combined with a portrayal about her tragic decline into drugs and alcohol. 

Here is the excerpt that tells the audience what to expect, from an interview with Kevin R. Free, the Director of Lady Day...

I was never a fan of Billie Holiday, never.  When I finally heard her sing, I was in college, and I thought...it wasn't a strong voice, she didn't ad lib, there wasn't any scatting, there was nothing fun for me about the way she sang. It just sounded like somebody on drugs singing songs. And, I did not like that.  I was a teetotaler. I did not drink, I did not do drugs, so I was judging her; this is a black woman everyone admires, and she is on drugs. So, that was me, and my respectability politics, and how I was raised.

Then I got older. At Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, around 2007 or 2008, they found nooses hanging around trees and on people's doors.  I was performing with the New York Neo-Futurists, "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Do Blind", and I wrote the play called "Knots of a Native Son". It was basically about trying to see the world as a universe of individuals, and thinking about how some are left a noose on a door and there wasn't a huge public outcry organized by the people, when I was writing that two-minute play, I was looking for a song to go with it and that is when I found "Strange Fruit".  I had never listened to Billie Holiday long enough to  have heard "Strange Fruit". I had completely turned my back on her. The way the trumpet happens at the beginning of the song is so heartbreaking and lonely and beautiful. Hearing that, that song, changed me and changed my opinion of Billie Holiday. Because, at that point, I knew a lot of other things, I had more of a connection to my own racial identity. I was writing about race all the time, and at that pint, when I heard "Strange Fruit", I thought she was incredible. The song is confrontational because it says, "let's talk about this, this strange fruit that is hanging from the trees,these black people. Often you're encountered with some kind of white guilt, people saying, "Why do we have to talk about this?" But this is the world where we live and where she lived. I think, it is even more confrontational than any public figures was doing. That changed me.  I want to hold people responsible and make them look at the world of the play that is based on the world we live in...

Strange Fruit was a protest song, that Billie Holiday very bravely performed under grave threats and at high personal cost.

Here are the lyrics of Strange Fruit:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is…the fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

In 1999, Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the "song of the century." The Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry. It's been recorded dozens of times. Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an instrumental version, with Miller evoking the poem on his mournful bass clarinet.

Indeed, I am humbled by having had the experience of seeing "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill". Like the sentiment expressed by Lee, the story changed something for me. Not only did I come to see Ms. Holiday from a social reformer's point of view, but I admire her valiant efforts to make the world a better place through singing, and her songs will keep her spirit alive.

Racism and racial segregation took a lot out of Ms. Holiday's soul, but she filled the void with memorable music.

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