Jazz performer’s life staged as monologue

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Louis Valdez, St. Philip’s drama graduate, and Michelle Burnett, district continuing education coordinator of workforce education, rehearse a scene for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” Wednesday in Watson theater.  Photo by Pam Paz

Louis Valdez, St. Philip’s drama graduate, and Michelle Burnett, district continuing education coordinator of workforce education, rehearse a scene for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” Wednesday in Watson theater. Photo by Pam Paz

Vincent Hardy, St. Philip’s College theater instructor and director, and Michelle Burnett, district continuing education coordinator of workforce education, discuss a scene during rehearsal for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” Wednesday in Watson theater.  Photo by Pam Paz

Vincent Hardy, St. Philip’s College theater instructor and director, and Michelle Burnett, district continuing education coordinator of workforce education, discuss a scene during rehearsal for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” Wednesday in Watson theater. Photo by Pam Paz

St. Philip’s College’s spring production opens April 10.

By Pam Paz

ppaz2@student.alamo.edu

Billie Holiday, or Lady Day as she was known, is a legendary jazz singer whose fast-paced life of drug and alcohol abuse caught up to her at the age of 44.

Famous for songs such as “Strange Fruit” and “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone?” her style continues to influence today’s artists.

Details of her life will be dramatized in St. Philip’s theater presentation of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” written by Lanie Robertson and directed by theater Instructor Vincent Hardy.

The play opens at 8 p.m. April 10 in the theater in Watson Fine Arts Center at St. Philip’s College. It runs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday through April 19.

In the play, set in a 1959 Philadelphia bar shortly before her death, Holiday portrays her life through her music: her success, her dark times and everything in between.

Jazz singer Billie Holiday performing in New York in 1947.  Courtesy

Jazz singer Billie Holiday performing in New York in 1947. Courtesy

Hardy said he chose this play because he missed Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald’s Broadway performance of 2014. Her portrayal of Holiday won her a sixth Tony Award, according to www.ladydayonbroadway.com.

“I couldn’t get to New York to see it, so I decided to do it,” he said.

Hardy described Holiday as a misunderstood, but fascinating individual who had to hustle to survive.

Holiday was recruited to a brothel in New York and was subsequently arrested for prostitution, according to www.pbs.org.

“She’s called Lady Day and considered very elegant with her beautiful gowns, but could fight like a man, and would fight men if they offended her,” he said.

Stage manager Erin Polewski and Michelle Burnett, district continuing education coordinator of workforce education, listen to the feedback from Vincent Hardy, St. Philip’s College theater instructor and director, during rehearsal for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” Wednesday.  Photo by Pam Paz

Stage manager Erin Polewski and Michelle Burnett, district continuing education coordinator of workforce education, listen to the feedback from Vincent Hardy, St. Philip’s College theater instructor and director, during rehearsal for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” Wednesday. Photo by Pam Paz

Holiday lived a tumultuous life that included exploitation and abuse, Hardy said.

“One thing about her is that she would never call herself a victim,” he said. “She would say that she chose it.”

Michelle Burnett, continuing education coordinator of workforce education for Alamo Colleges, will play the part of Holiday.

Hardy said he didn’t think there was a student who could pull off the role, and he made the decision to approach Burnett for the role last summer.

“She’s an incredible actor and vocalist,” he said.

Hardy said Burnett is a local actor and starred in “Hairspray.”

The cast includes Burnett, SPC drama graduate Louis Valdez and musical director David Lopez.

Prior to rehearsal Wednesday, Hardy met with the play’s production crew and discussed lighting, sound and stage production.

Miriah Borden, Texas State University graduate, is the play’s lighting director. During the production meeting, Borden discussed ways the light would create a halo effect around Burnett.

Russell Calder, technical director and senior designer, said he’s been involved in the production since November but has spent about a month working on the set.

A unique element of this production is that Hardy is opening the stage to those who are interested in participating as fans of Holiday

“The way the set is, I have tables on stage so if couples want to sit on stage and be a part of Emerson’s and act as fans of Billie Holiday, they can call or email me,” Hardy said.

The tables can accommodate four couples for each showing, except opening night, he said.

Hardy can be reached at 210-486-2838 or at vhardy@alamo.edu.

The play contains themes such as drug use and adult language. It is most suitable for people over 14, but is open to all, Hardy said.

Admission to the general public is $10; Alamo Colleges students and employees, seniors and San Antonio Theater Coalition members $5; high school students pay no admission.  Call 210-486-2205.

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