Billie! Backstage with Lady Day
The soul of blues/jazz singer Billie Holiday is back in the form of Synthia L. Hardy. Her one woman show, “Billie! Backstage with Lady Day” is one of the best one woman biographical shows since the story Big Mama Thornton. Both women had their troubles with themselves, and their families. Only Billie had a rougher life no writer could make up no matter how hard she/he tried. Synthia Hardy comes roaring in cussing up a storm dressed to perfection in a purple jacket and matching skirt, scarf on the head, huge black glasses wearing a mink stole and carrying her belongings. She’s late, tired and has a show to do in less than 30 minutes. This is the audience’s one chance behind the scenes peek at what happens backstage.
She pours two glasses of vodka and passes one to the piano man (Lanny Hartley) and asks why the audience is here. He explained that we were there to hear about her life story. Hardy shakes the cubes in her glass and firmly announced that no discussion of her drug habit will be discusses but she could change her mind.
She was born Eleanor Fagan. She was raped at 10 and sent to reform school. Her attacker was caught but served only three months. She made money working at Miss Alice’s, a well known brothel, by running errands and giving that money to her mother, Sadie Fagan, whom she loved dearly. Sadie worked as maid in Caucasian households whereas her daddy Clarence Holiday worked on-and-off again as a musician. Throughout her tumultuous career, she sang a lot of memorable songs that stuck to your heart and gut. “Loverman,” “God Bless the Child,” and the one song remade famous by singer Diana Ross, who portrayed Holiday in the 1972 movie “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Good Morning, Heartache.”
Hardy provided a bit of history of each of the previously titled songs. For example in “Loverman” she said that as Billie, she always had to fight something or someone for her life. The Grammy Award Hall of Fame recipient was made after she had a bad argument with her mother over borrowing some money. The most haunting song, which Hardy sang with such sadness and loss, “Strange Fruit” was written as a poem by Jewish high school teacher Abel Meeropol aka Lewis Allen after seeing a photograph of two men swinging high up on the trees as White onlookers cheered on. It was easy to see the pain in Hardy’s eyes as she recalled this moment as if it happened to her personally. By this time, her father died of pneumonia in jail; what was referred to as the Jim Crow Section.
As Billie, she admits her life took a spiral turn downward when Sadie died. That was her heart and how it died. A long list of abusive men came through but somehow she remained strong. She had to. There was no one else to watch over her. Her parents passed, she divorced trombonist Jimmy Monroe and spent her life being humiliated and haunted by police. She openly showed her disgust for the cops by pissing in a bucket in front of them in jail. That woman had balls!!
Hardy did her homework thoroughly and got the legend of blues down to a science. Her brusque mannerisms, her rough language and the famous double gardenia worn on her right side of her hair were all brought to life. It was hard to distinguish where Hardy started and Holiday finished. Hardy does a dress change from business wearing to a white stretch dress, utilizing elbow-length gloves, diamonds on her neck and ears and the famous double gardenia placed behind her right ear.
Hardy was tough when necessary but also endearing and vulnerable when it comes to her family, her marriages and the times she recalls being in jail for whatever charges the police could come up with. Lord, Holiday’s life was a hot mess. But her strength, through Hardy, is strong but dented but always on the move. Hardy portrayed Holiday with class, versatility and most importantly with heart and sympathy. Hardy’s voice was reminiscent Lady Day. Raspy, crying, hopeful, hopeless and still wails on expressing in song what she probably couldn’t convey in a conversation; unless you were a son-of-a-bitch.
Billie! Backstage with Lady Day runs only Sundays March 14, 21, 28th at 7 p.m. at the Whitefire Theatre located at 13500 Ventura Blvd., in Sherman Oaks. Tickets available online at www.plays411.com/billie or by phone 323-960-44180