One part exposé, one part jazz show, and one part history lesson, Billie! Backstage with Lady Day brings iconic performer Billie Holiday to life at Oceanside’s Brooks Theater through October 2nd.
This musical, a one-woman show which features playwright/actor/vocalist Synthia L. Hardy as the music legend alongside pianist Woody Woods and jazz combo musicians Russell Bizzett, Dr. Marcus Wilcher, and Gedeon Deák, is in some ways a historic impersonation production more than a play, an approach that places the audience squarely in the 1950s. During Act 1, Billie breaks the fourth wall, interview-style, to recount various events and experiences from her formative years and intermission shifts the locale to the mainstage of the club itself as the headliner takes the stage. This format, while simple, provides a peek into how Billie Holiday’s traumas shaped her art before unabashedly putting the art on display.
In its San Diego premiere (helmed by director Bryan Rasmussen), this local debut is intimate and intense. From the moment she enters the space for what is presented as a backstage interview, Hardy carries the raw frustrations of a woman who has been through a devastatingly long list of traumas and challenges. Through a prompt to “start at the beginning” from her pianist, she begins to delve into those dark circumstances. While Billie Holiday is primarily known for being a jazz and blues musician with a velvet voice and talent with improv, this show focuses on her turbulent upbringing. Through a series of monologues, the audience is introduced to Billie’s sexual assault at age 10 and subsequent arrest for prostitution, the loss of multiple family members, her struggles at the hands of abusive partners, and her experiences with systemic racism and bias, both in performance spaces and in her personal life.
As each of these experiences is detailed in first person, actress Synthia Hardy runs the gamut in terms of range; she travels from informative to aggrieved to devastated and back again in her depictions, and it is visceral. Along the way, each story is connected to its inspiration of a song and, as Billie gets ready for the evening’s concert, these key life events are punctuated through the backstage rehearsals of these numbers including “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child,” “Good Morning Heartache,” and others.
The veil is up with the Lady Day persona in place as a shield, however, when Hardy returns in Act 2. This shift from a more intimate and seemingly confidential setting to a public stage marks a clear delineation, and the remainder of the production features Hardy’s able vocals with a talented jazz combo playing tunes like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” “All of Me,” and “Them There Eyes,” with sultry wailing, skilled soloists, and an audience ready and waiting to receive it. As Hardy proclaims, anytime something goes wrong, she can just take the band “out and let them play” and everything is suddenly better. I am inclined to agree; the music is alternately vibrant and bluesy and a celebration of an artist who was dealt a bad hand, with that context now firmly in place.
Ultimately, this production hustles and breathes on its own to bring an icon to life before our eyes. While Billie! does not shy away from the abuse that its titular superstar and the Black community faced at the hands of society in her era, at the end of the day, it serves as a celebration of a woman of excellence, her resilience, and her many great contributions to the industry and the world.
Billie! Backstage with Lady Day runs for one more weekend with performances on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.at the Oceanside Theatre Company’s historic Brooks Theatre in Oceanside.