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Billie Holiday sings again in Actor's Theatre of Charlotte production
'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill' Jan. 16-Feb. 8
Published Monday, January 6, 2020 6:20 pm
by Ashley Mahoney | The Charlotte Post

Janeta Jackson plays Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson's "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" presented by Actor's Theatre of Charlotte. The stage production is Jan. 16-Feb. 8.

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Imagine a woman on stage with a white gardenia in her hair and unforgettable voice.

It’s Eleanora Fagan, also known as Lady Day, but best known as Billie Holiday. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte brings the iconic jazz singer to life in Lanie Robertson’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Holiday’s nickname Lady Day came from friend and musical partner—tenor saxophonist Lester Young. She would coin him “Prez.”

Queens University of Charlotte’s Hadley Theatre becomes 1959 Philadelphia for one of her last performances, with Janeta Jackson as Holiday. Willis Hickerson plays accompanist Jimmy Powers. The 90-minute show—no intermission—runs Jan. 16-Feb. 8.

“You have to understand a lot about her story, and why she sang the things she sang, and how she got her voice—from her inspirations, which was Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith,” Jackson said. “You just have to understand a little bit of her history to kind of embody that, and really feel the intention and pain behind her voice, and the way she sings.”

Robertson’s story brings the audience in at the end of Holiday’s life. The singer died the same year at age 44.

“She’s kind of at a state where people don’t really want to work with her, because she is a mess,” Jackson said. “Her accompanist, Jimmy Powers, has gotten her this gig. It’s like, ‘OK, we don’t know how many more people are going to let you come sing, so you have to get through this.’ That’s kind of where she is. She doesn’t want to do it, but she has to. It’s kind of like a last resort for her, but it’s also a place she loves to perform, and she’s been there before. She has a little sense of home at this particular location.”

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Holiday’s voice broke barriers, as she became the first black woman to work with a white band in 1938, when Artie Shaw invited her to front his orchestra.

“When I think about Billie Holiday, I think of a legend,” Jackson said. “She’s so iconic and very well known, but getting known more about her story, it’s a little heartbreaking that it kind of ended the way that it did, but she has so much pride and strength and resilience in a lot of the things that she has gone through, that it is admirable, the way that she has taken all of the hard parts of her life, and just turned it into music, and made it a part of her. I don’t want to say necessarily a positive part of her, but she took it, and made it a part of her to share with others so they get to enjoy her gift, as she’s sharing her stories with them.”

Taking on the role of Holiday is Jackson’s first time working with ATC. What happens after the production remains wide open, as long it falls under the umbrella of what Jackson considers meaningful work—“work that brings [her] joy.” While the stage is primarily her creative home, she would like to explore television and film opportunities. Performing on Broadway remains her dream.

“It has definitely been a journey, preparing for this role,” Jackson said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do after it closes. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
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