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Nobody Knows the Trouble She’s Seen — Until This Bio-Play

Ed Rampell: What I particularly like about Billie Holiday: Front and Center is that unlike, say, Don Cheadle’s recent Miles Davis biopic, Harris depicts exactly what led Billie to have such self destructive behavior.

BILLIE HOLIDAY: FRONT AND CENTER Theater Review

Billie Holiday

This gem at the Fremont Centre Theatre, written and performed by Sybil Harris, epitomizes what Los Angeles’ 99-seat (and less) theater scene is all about. In Billie Holiday: Front and Center, Harris crafts a simply wrought yet moving bio-play about the über crooner, interweaving vignettes of Billie’s often troubled life with performances of many of the jazz and blues hits she is beloved for, backed by a great quartet who play live music throughout the two-acter.

For those unfamiliar with the singer/songwriter nicknamed Lady Day, she was a preeminent presence on the club and recording scene from the 1930s-1950s, still renowned for her renditions of standards such as “God Bless the Child” (co-written by Billie), the Gershwins’ “Summertime”, etc. One could argue that along with luminaries such as Bessie Smith (recently portrayed in a TV movie by Queen Latifah), Billie gave voice to what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the souls of Black folks.”

What I particularly like about Billie Holiday: Front and Center is that unlike, say, Don Cheadle’s recent Miles Davis biopic, Harris depicts exactly what led Billie to have such self destructive behavior.

What I particularly like about Billie Holiday: Front and Center is that unlike, say, Don Cheadle’s recent Miles Davis biopic, Harris depicts exactly what led Billie to have such self destructive behavior. Let’s just say that Billie’s childhood and much of her subsequent private life was, well, no holiday. And racism psychologically tortured this sensitive spirit. (Debbie Nathan’s recent cover story about Sandra Bland in The Nation includes some insights into the psychology of African American women, and is well worth reading, especially as a sort of companion piece to this bio-play.)

Sybil Harris is - well - Sybil-like in her portrayals of not only Billie, but also of various female and male characters, although this is not, strictly speaking, a one-woman show per se, because some of the musicians briefly play different roles, too. Skillfully directed by B’Anca, Harris - a veteran stage and screen actress with a radiant smile - executes the multiple roles well in that Anna Deavere Smith tradition. In terms of her acting and singing in her incarnation of Billie, Harris seemed convincing to me, although this reviewer is no expert in the matter and opinions among audience members seemed mixed. But for my money, it’s competitive with Diana Ross’ in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues and Audra MacDonald’s in the recent cable TV movie version of the Broadway play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

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My favorite among the many numbers Harris performed backed by her live band was the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”, written and composed by Abel Meeropol (by some accounts, Billie, who famously recorded it in 1939, co-wrote it). By a strange quirk of fate, the same week I saw the world premiere of Billie Holiday: Front and Center I also interviewed Ivy Meeropol about her new anti-nuclear power documentary Indian Point. Meeropol’s grandparents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the so-called “atomic spies.” After the execution of these American Communists in the 1950s, Abel Meeropol adopted the Rosenbergs’ son - including Ivy’s father.

The bio-play’s second act is longer than Act I and my one misgiving is that for those of us unfamiliar with Billie’s life and trajectory, there’s no explanation in the drama for what befalls her. Her fate seems to come out of nowhere, and the back story presented in the first act is missing in action in the denouement. Nevertheless, this bio-play is highly recommended to theatergoers interested in title character, music, jazz, the Blues, African American history and culture and in a just worthwhile time at a live stage show. But caution: Sybil Harris’ smile may bedazzle you.

Billie Holiday: Front and Center is taking place through June 12 on Fridays - Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00 p.m., at the Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. (at El Centro), South Pasadena, CA 91030. Free parking behind theatre. For tickets: (800)838-3006; www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2499741

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/). Rampell’s interview with activist/actress Rosario Dawson is in the June issue of The Progressive Magazine.