A decade ago, Rhonda Bellamy took the stage as the one and only Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” directed by Mike O’Neill. This weekend the show, directed by David Loudermilk, returns as part of Thalian Association’s summer series at the intimate Red Barn Studio Theatre. Donning gardenias in her hair and manuevering silky notes that sound like a muted horn will be LaRaisha Burnette. Though Burnette is relatively new to the theatre scene, having made her debut just two years ago in City Stage’s “Brooklyn,” it’s her first time taking on a lead role and a one-woman show. Yet, it seems kismet she’ll make her solo stage debut as Holiday.
“She has always been a singer I have idolized,” says Burnette, who happens to be the lead singer of her own band, LaCi. Burnette started belting big notes at age 19 when she attended New York University and trained in performance art. She had the opportunity to expand upon her talents abroad as well.
“During summers in Amsterdam, I baby-sat a professor’s child and helped my other professor, his wife, with aspects of [a new] program at NYU,” Burnette says. “We had a duo called ‘Geezer and the Babe,’ and for four summers we did a performance for the 24 acting students studying abroad through the experimental theatre program.”
Two summers ago, the professor and student focused only on Billie Holiday songs. Burnette remembers “Strange Fruit” and “Gloomy Sunday” as difficult and haunting. “They both spoke to my struggles with racism and depression; sometimes separate but other times issues intertwined,” she notes. “I never realized how familar Billie’s life was to mine. I know people see [I went to] NYU and assume I was wealthy or well-to-do, but we struggled most of our lives, and my parents sacrificed a lot to give me that opportunity. I could always hear that struggle in Billie’s voice, and it gave me peace of mind.”
Billie Holiday—who was actually born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia—had a rough childhood. Often, she was shipped back and forth between her mother and a distant family member to be reared during her primary years. She was placed in a Catholic reform school at 9 before dropping out by age 11. Having undergone attempted rape, Holiday moved from Philly to Harlem with her mother in 1929, wherein both worked in a brothel at 151 West 140th Street. Once the house was raided, the 14-year-old was sent to prison, and upon her release began singing in various nightclubs.
Her career took off, eventually, as she worked with well-known musicians like Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Louis Armstrong, and others. Riddled with a heroin addiction, Holiday ended up in prison again in 1947 for a narcotics charge and continued having run-ins with the law, which led to the revocation of her New York City Cabaret Card. The system prevented people of bad character from working in licensed nightclubs, which sold alcohol and paid performers better wages. Highs and lows peppered Holiday’s life, between lost record labels and receiving little royalties, to touring Europe and releasing her greatest LP, “Lady Sings the Blues,” to dealing with relationship abuse, alcholism and drug addiction. She died in 1959 from liver and heart disease, and was actually under arrest by law officers who had targeted her since 1939. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” follows Holiday’s last performance in March 1959.
When artistic director David Loudermilk was looking to cast “Lady Day,” he quickly put Burnette at the top of his list. “The first time I heard her take on Billie Holiday was in an email she sent me,” he says, “and I had goosebumps.”
Sharing the depth and impact of Holiday’s story goes beyond her vast impression on jazz music. Much of Lady Day’s encounters in life, within the music industry and on tours were deeply affected by the social unrest of racism in the early-to-mid-20th century. “Strange Fruit” is actually based on an Abel Meeropol poem from 1937, which challenges racism and particularly the lynching of African Americans. Holiday once said it reminded her of her own father’s death and the refusal he received for health care because of the color of his skin.
“I have sung ‘Strange Fruit’ quite a bit,” Burnette tells, “and that will always be a hard song to not lose myself emotionally, because it’s 2015, yet racism is very prevalent. It’s odd going through something like this in present day and having a song that reminds you of how bad it was. It will make people think, and that makes it the most powerful song and difficult song in the show. After that, all bets are off.”
Burnette also performs Bessie Smith’s famed “Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer).” It’s a tune that Holiday made her own with vast sex appeal. “I think if someone like Amy Winehouse or Adele recorded it, it would have been a huge hit,” Burnette tells. “Billie took a very sing-song version that Bessie did and added the hottest horn opening I have ever heard—she just makes you feel like dancing and enjoying life when she sings it.”
Burnette has been practicing profusely at home with her microphone and amp set up in her music room. She is grateful for the encouragement from her boyfriend, Christian, as well as local thespians and friends on the scene who have offered support. Nicole Farmer has been her acting coach for dialect and script work. Holli Saperstein and J.R. Rodriguez have offered tips as well.
“I think it’s incredible to have a town of actors who help one another out,” Burnette touts. “They have become my mentors and allies during this whole process in a way I didn’t think I would need.”
A live band will share the stage with Burnette, featuring Bryan Simmons, Desmin Gore and Harrington Ward. Gore, a minister of music and a producer and songwriter who has worked with Fantasia and Jill Scott, and Simmons both appreciate the soul siren’s impact on music. “Billie Holiday opened up new avenues for today’s music,” Gore says.
In the show the spotlight is on Burnette. She won’t simply perform songs, she’ll inject the passion of them through storytelling. “There have been some emotional roadblocks with that,” Burnette honestly reveals, “and I just dive deeper into her voice and her sound when it’s too scary for me to be present.”
Burnette’s most inspired by the humor of the singer despite her hard-knocks in life. Grit and tragedy manage to captivate, yet so much more lies beneath. “I think others will be pleasantly surprised by how much gall she possessed and how funny she was,” Burnette says.
“She took a crappy life and tried to remember the bad stuff as just things that happened—long as she was singing, they were just things that happened.”
Loudermilk has researched Holiday extensively. He has enlisted the help of UNCW’s Susan Wilder, who was the production coordinator on the original “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which opened at the Vineyar Theatre and starred Lonette McKee. “She has been an amazing resource,” Loudermilk tells.
Scenic design is by Randall Enlow (UNCW), with construction by Lance L. Howell, lighting design by Thomas Salzman (UNCW), and stage managing by Isabella Gorden. They’ve culled a production that will celebrate the centennial birthday of Billie Holiday
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
June 11-28, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.;
Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $25 • www.thalian.org
Red Barn Studio Theatre
1122 S. 3rd St.