Tanea Renee, the star of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” says she had some guiding principles in preparing for the role of Billie Holiday, whose life and career is the subject of the play.
“I decided not to focus on the fact that she was an icon,” Renee told me. “I focused on what we have in common as a woman and an artist,” said the Baltimore native, who has moved back after more than a decade living in New York. The Towson University graduate has worked on the stage and in television roles there, while also working on stages all along the East Coast.
In “Lady Day,” she radiates a mixture of earthiness and charm. Her singing is often reminiscent of Holiday’s singular voice and style, but it isn’t mimicry. She sings delicately on the romantic ballad, “My Man.” Her rendition of the Billie Holiday classic about self-determination, “God Bless the Child,” is soul-stirring. She turns bluesy and raucous on “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” the song about the glory of a good time first made widely popular by one of Holiday’s idols, Bessie Smith.
Renee’s performance flows easily into monologues and dialogues, many of which allude to the most painful experiences from Holiday’s life. The show is set in a Philadelphia bar reminiscent of one where Holiday gave one of her final performances. The character recalls some experiences in that city with bitterness. She speaks warmly about her time with her mother in Baltimore and calls it home.
Renee told me that while researching Holiday’s life in preparation for the role, she found some personal accounts of friends and family members letting one another know that “Eleanor is home,” perhaps for a performance or just for a visit. In listening to interviews with Holiday, Renee said she heard the voice of a woman who had lived on her own terms, without regret.
The show returned to Baltimore Center Stage after first being staged there 30 years ago, Sarah Ashley Cain, director of artistic producing at Center Stage, told me. For the show in the Head Theater, the entire performance space has been turned into a cabaret setting, with some audience members seated at the small tables on stage. The idea was for the audience “to see the full scope and arc” of an intimate Billie Holiday performance accompanied by a trio.
Hanging in the backdrop above the stage are portraits of many of the leading figures in the history of jazz — with Bessie Smith and Holiday’s mentor and artistic influence, Louis Armstrong, on large portraits in the center. Center Stage has also decorated a nearby meeting room with images of Holiday, highlighting her connections to Baltimore. That display arose from a collaboration with the Billie Holiday Center for Liberation Arts at Johns Hopkins University to offer educational resources about Holiday’s life and career and her Baltimore history.
Billie Holiday was Eleanora Fagan during her years growing up with her mother in Baltimore at 219 S. Durham St. The building has been designated as the Billie Holiday House. They also lived for a time in the house next door, at 217 S. Durham.
Holiday, for many years during and after her life, was thought to have been born in Baltimore. But birth records discovered in recent years showed that she was born on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia. Billie’s mother, Sadie Fagan, delivered Eleanora during what was apparently a short stay in Philadelphia. She lived on Durham Street or with friends or relatives at other places in Baltimore from before Eleanora was born and through her daughter’s early teen years.
While still in her early teens, Eleanora Fagan was already singing in bars and brothels in Fells Point. A short time later, she was performing at some of the small venues on Pennsylvania Avenue, which, for decades, was the focal point in Baltimore for Black entertainment and nightlife. Around that time, Sadie Fagan moved to Harlem, in New York City, and took Eleanora with her.
Once in Harlem, Eleanora Fagan found work singing in small nightclubs. She began using her professional name, which pays homage to screen actress Billie Dove, whose on-screen persona she admired. By the time she was 18, she began recording hits with groups led by Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. The string of memorable collaborations with Lester Young began in 1936.
Then it was on to singing with the Count Basie Orchestra, and when Artie Shaw invited her to become lead vocalist for his orchestra, she became the first Black woman to work with a white band. Through the 1940s, she became a fixture at New York nightclubs. When she returned to Baltimore to perform, she packed venues such as Club Astoria on Edmondson Avenue. She would become a favorite at the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue, where all the biggest Black musical and comedy stars performed.
Her hundreds of recordings spanned three decades and record labels including Decca, Verve and Columbia. Her movie appearances included starring in the film “New Orleans” alongside Louis Armstrong. Her many television appearances included joining many of the top instrumentalists in jazz on the landmark CBS “Sound of Jazz” program.
Billie Holiday and various aspects of her life have been examined numerous times in books, on stage and on film. The film “Lady Sings the Blues” made an impression that has lasted for decades, shaping Holiday’s image in the popular imagination.
James Baldwin examined elements of the film in “The Devil Finds Work,” his book about the role movies, and the stars that perform in them, play in American mythmaking.
“‘Lady Sings the Blues,’” he wrote, “is related to the Black American experience in about the same way, and to the same extent, that Princess Grace Kelly is related to the Irish potato famine: by courtesy.”
“It has absolutely nothing to do with Billie,” he wrote, “or with jazz, or any other kind of music, or the risks of an artist, or American life, or Black life, or narcotics laws, or clubs, or managers, or policemen, or despair, or love. The script is as empty as a banana peel, and as treacherous.”
Despite that assessment, Baldwin did find Diana Ross as Holiday to be a remarkable display of her talents and of the artistic instincts reflected in her portrayal.
“She picks up on Billie’s beat, and, for the rest, uses herself, with a moving humility and candor, to create a portrait of a woman overwhelmed by the circumstances of her life,” Baldwin wrote.
This is what Tanea Renee largely achieves in “Lady Day.”
In her portrait of Holiday, in monologues or in the middle of songs, the audience hears about the trauma that Holiday survived. Her struggles with addiction and her treatment by police are referenced throughout the performance.
The character also recalls that as a child, a man who was a boarder at Sadie Fagan’s house raped Eleanora.
She recalls learning about how her father died. Clarence Holiday, a guitarist in Fletcher Henderson’s band, suffered a lung ailment while traveling in Texas. He was denied treatment at the nearest hospitals because they refused to treat Black patients. His condition worsened, and by the time he could be taken to a veteran’s hospital, it was too late to save him.
Billie Holiday said she sang “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching anthem, with her father in mind, Baldwin wrote.
In her performance, Renee reminds the audience about how the painful parts of Holiday’s life influenced her artistry and how she transformed that pain into beauty. As we consider Billie Holiday and what her legacy means to Baltimore and to the world, that’s the whole point.
And it’s different from allowing trauma and tragedy to define who she was. Because like Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong — the musical and cultural icons who influenced Billie Holiday — it was her voice, her style, the way she looked and her entire being that were all so profound.
Mark Williams is The Baltimore Banner’s Opinion Editor.