Rehearsing for a play that was first performed in 1986 and which tracks the life of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who died in 1959, actor Zahra Newman is busy untangling decades of mythology.
In State Theatre Company SA’s premiere season of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, she hopes to roundly reject the tortured-genius stereotype that so often settles over iconic artists like Holiday.
“She was just a really fantastic singer and she wasn’t a fantastic artist because she had drama,” says Newman. “The trauma and the drug use and all that sort of stuff… they weren’t the things that made her very good. She was actually just really good at her job.”
Inhabiting the role of Holiday has been a long time coming for Newman, who first saw a Broadway production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in 2014 while visiting New York. Although immediately captivated by the show, she was also intimidated by it.
Loosely inspired by one of Holiday’s last performances, which took place in a Philadelphia nightclub in 1959, the show is structured as a live set during which Holiday sings numbers from her back catalogue between unfurling her biography through on-stage banter.
It requires a skilful performer to simultaneously conjure Holiday’s idiosyncratic and resonant musical delivery while generating storytelling momentum with only an on-stage band and the audience to bounce off. But it wasn’t only these aspects of craft that unnerved Newman when she considered tackling the script.
“There’s a sense when you portray people from history… [that] people watching have an expectation of how that person should be because they have a relationship to that person,” says Newman.
“So, somebody like Billie Holiday, there’s people I’ve spoken to who went through whole periods of their lives just listening to her over and over again. And when they come to the show, whether it’s at the foreground or not, they’re kind of wanting that feeling again.
“And sometimes that’s not necessarily what we do… sometimes, as performers and as storytellers, we’re trying to challenge that.”
Despite her initial misgivings, Newman was encouraged to take on the role after realising that her most satisfying projects were also often the most challenging.
This has proven the case over her more than a decade-long career, which has its roots in the community theatres of her birth country, Jamaica. It was there that Newman discovered the unmatched sense of camaraderie that develops among a production team. Chasing that feeling when she and her mother immigrated to Australia, she pursued acting into tertiary education – studying drama at the Victorian College of the Arts and graduating in 2008.
Since then, her CV has evolved at breakneck speed, with Newman performing in everything from blockbuster musicals such as The Book of Mormon to screen favourites including Neighbours and Rosehaven.
While her career is successful by any measure, Newman says her interest is piqued more by complexity than by commerciality. She lists co-creating and performing in Malthouse Theatre’s Wake in Fright among her biggest achievements, saying it was thrilling to take on a story so close to the heart of Australia’s identity.
Another highlight was a 2011 Melbourne Theatre Company production that also pushed Australian audiences to reconsider their perceptions.
“The very first time I did a one-person show, which was not very long after I graduated, was a show called Random,” says Newman.
“And part of why that show was terrifying to me was because debbie tucker green is an Afro-Caribbean British playwright. And a lot of the content and context of that play… involved Caribbean people. And it was the first time I was ever going to, in Australia, inhabit my identity – speak on stage in Creole and embody characters who are not characters that necessarily live in the Australian cultural landscape.”
The rehearsals for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill have brought back echoes of working on these shows, says Newman, as she and director Mitchell Butel dive deep into the cultural dynamics that surround the myth-building around Billie Holiday.
Acting also as associate director on the production, Newman says she and the team are finding an anchor point for Holiday’s story in a simple place – the music. It’s in the moments of musical joy Holiday experiences alongside piano player Jimmy Powers – who is portrayed by the production’s musical director, Kym Purling – that Newman has found the character’s full power.
“She liked singing and she liked playing, she liked jamming, you know, she liked music,” Newman says. “If she can just hang out with the band and sing, that’s what really got her rocks off, I think.
“So that relationship [with Jimmy Powers], I think, will be really integral to the show and selling that kind of immersive feeling of it being a jazz club in Philly in ’59.”
Somewhat ironically, it’s inside the music that made her famous that the key to Billie Holiday the person – rather than the icon – lies.
“People in the public eye… they often become an idea. There’s an idea of who Billie Holiday is,” says Newman.
“And hopefully some of what the show does is tries to break us out of that as observers so we realise this is a full person with a full life and some capacity and some incapacity, you know?
“You get to experience a more 3D-version of her.”
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is playing at the Space Theatre, August 25 – September 9, before touring to Sydney and Melbourne.
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