Agony and ecstasy of jazz icon Billie Holiday all in night’s work for ‘Lady Day’ star Rogers
Preview: Alexis Rogers portrays Holiday in Porchlight Theatre’s production of Lanie Robertson’s musical bio-drama “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” The show runs Feb. 5-March 10 at Stage 773.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Singer-actress Alexis J. Rogers thinks of herself as cut from the same cloth as the great jazz vocalist Billie Holiday—a spunky, lively, laughing spirit, and someone who doesn’t mince words.
That’s the briefly resurgent Billie Holiday, heroin-addicted and near the end of her life, embodied by Rogers in Lanie Robertson’s musical bio-drama “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” The show opens Feb. 5 in a production by Porchlight Music Theatre.
“Billie had been through so much at that point in her life, in and out of addiction, jail, relationships,” says Rogers, “but she still believed her voice was strong and clear. She really felt she was at her peak. Even though she knew addiction was beating her, she didn’t live a defeated life. This is a sad tale, but also one in which Billie is celebrating herself. She didn’t believe in sulking.”
Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia in 1915, Billie Holiday emerged from a hard childhood and poverty to set the standard for jazz singing. Though she died at age 44, burned out by self-abuse after two decades of headline celebrity, Billie Holiday’s soulful style, with its distinctive rhythm and phrasing as well as its characteristic poignancy, remains the benchmark for women in jazz.
“I’ve always listened to Sarah (Vaughan) and Dinah (Washington) and Ella (Fitzgerald),” says Rogers, “but there was no one like Billie. She was so committed to the words, and her sense of rhythm was second to none. Ella was more polished, but Billie’s singing is so gritty, raw and tangible.”
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” set in 1959 just four months before Holiday’s death, catches the singer doing a show with a backup band of piano, bass and drums. While it unfolds as a gig, in between performances of a dozen of her hits—gems like “God Bless the Child,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and that anthem of black oppression, “Strange Fruit”—the singer reflects on her life, the good times and the rough, the joy and the pain.
“Billie gives you glimpses into who she really is, rather than who people say she is,” says Rogers. “In this concert, she also has an issue—she’s wanting to be high, to get her fix of heroin. She doesn’t really want to do the concert. She does it because she needs the money, so she can drink, smoke and buy her fix.
“That’s how you see the difference between on-point Billie and undone Billie. It’s sad but real and true to who this person was. We’re just telling her story.”
Alexis J. Rogers brings a great deal of stage experience to her portrayal. In recent seasons, Chicago audiences have seen her in “Spunk” and August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” at Court Theatre, where she also portrayed Bess in “Porgy and Bess.” At Congo Square Theatre, where she is an ensemble member, Rogers’ credits include Wilson’s “Seven Guitars.”
The biggest challenge in playing Billie Holiday, she says, lies in matching the famously sultry center of her vocal range, not just singing but speaking as well.
“My voice is way higher,” Rogers says with a laugh. “I’m singing in a register I’ve never used. It’s a daunting task, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity for me and I’m grateful for it.”
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Preview of Porchlight Music Theatre’s complete 2012-13 season: Details at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Alexis J. Rogers, center, as Billie Holiday, framed by the real Lady Day. Descending: Actress-singer Alexis J. Rogers. With James Earl Jones II in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at Court Theatre. Alexis J. Rogers in Spunk at Court Theatre (Photos by Michael Brosilow) Below: Dancing with Parrish Collier in “Ain’t Misbehavin'” at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo courtesy Goodman Theatre)