Chicago actress to make her Temple Theatre debut as Billie Holiday, recreating one of the jazz legend’s final performances in a small, rundown Philadelphia bar just months before her death.
By Billy Liggett
Billie Holiday was a fascinating woman. The greatest jazz singer of her era — arguably of all time — despite no formal training. A social justice firebrand in a world ill-equipped to hear her message. The complicated “angel of Harlem” who fought the demons of drug and alcohol addiction, yet left a legacy that’s inspired generations of musicians since.
Chicago actress Jenece Upton will take on the daunting task of capturing the multi-layered essence of Holiday in Temple Theatre’s main stage production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which runs Feb. 23 through March 12.
Upton has experience on her side. She understudied the lead role at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Chicago just last year, and in addition to learning her lines, nailing the songs and studying Holiday’s speech patterns and mannerisms, Upton pored over books and films about the singer and took in all she could to really get into her mindset. It didn’t hurt that the actress she understudied for — Mardra Thomas — brought to the role a wealth of experience performing as Holiday in various concerts and theatrical productions.
“Mardra was very open and generous in sharing with me everything she knew about Billie Holiday — by the time I went on stage, I was ready. The nerves were gone,” Upton said. “It’s such a challenging role, so coming to Temple with this experience that I’ve had, it’s exciting. I’m just thrilled I get to do this again.”
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar” is a dramatized recreation of a real event — one of Holiday’s final performances in a run-down bar in South Philadelphia in March of 1959 (Holiday would die at 44 from liver failure related to her battle with alcoholism just four months later). The audience watches as Holiday tells her life story, performs a dozen songs accompanied by a pianist and becomes increasingly emotional (and intoxicated) as the show progresses.
“Lady Day” premiered in Atlanta in 1986 and hit Broadway in 2014 with stage legend Audra McDonald in titular role. McDonald earned her fifth Tony Award in 2014 of Lead Actress in a Play and was nominated for an Emmy in 2016 for the HBO broadcast of the production.
Temple Artistic Director Peggy Taphorn said she chose the production for the theater’s 2022-23 main stage lineup in an effort to continue to “diversity” their offerings.
“We want to ensure that all types of talent and productions are offered at Temple,” Taphorn said. “This is a heart-wrenching story of Billie Holiday’s life told through her own anecdotes and obvious decline throughout the show. But, what makes it special and highly entertaining is that it features all of Billie Holiday’s biggest hits.”
Finding an actress with experience in the role was the result of networking and a little luck. During the pandemic in 2020 — at a time when theaters across the country were on lockdown because of the elimination of live audiences — Upton took part in an online vocal training program with various instructors, and in that class, she met a young woman named Kelsey Wilson. Wilson, a North Carolina native who performed in recent Temple productions of “Beehive” and “A Christmas Carol,” came across an Instagram post from late December where Upton reflected on her year and included a photo of her on stage as Holiday in the Chicago production. Knowing that Taphorn and Temple were looking for their Lady Day, Wilson reached out to her friend and connected her with Taphorn. The rest is history.
“Up to now, I’ve never taken out-of-town work before, so I was nervous heading into this process,” said Upton. “But the opportunity was too exciting. Peggy was looking to cast pretty quickly, so I sent her a reel from my performance, and everything just moved fast from there. It goes to show how close-knit and supporting the theater community really is — you meet wonderful people like Kelsey, and it leads to something like this.”
Taphorn said Upton’s previous experience definitely played a part in her casting, as there’s barely nine day of rehearsal time leading up to the three-week production.
“I felt that hiring someone who had performed the role before would be an advantage for us all — as much for the actress as the rest of the production team,” she said. “I heard Jenece sing and saw some clips from her performance in Chicago and knew instantly that she was the perfect fit for this show. She has the voice and the acting ability to bring Billie Holiday to life.
“I’m thrilled that she will be joining us and that our audience will be able to experience this very special production.”
Born Eleanora Fagan Gough, Billie Holiday rose to prominence in the 1930s — she’s remembered today not only for her songwriting skills and unique style and voice, but also for her courageous views on inequality and justice. When she was 18, she was spotted by a producer who signed her to record a record with clarinetist Benny Goodman.
From 1935 to 1941, her career accelerated, recording numerous hits with pianist Teddy Wilson and sax legend Lester Young. Lester would christen her “Lady Day,” and in 1938, Holiday worked with Artie Shaw and his orchestra, making her the first Black woman to work with an all-white band.
Around this time, she was introduced to the poem, “Strange Fruit,” which told the story of lynchings in the South. Holiday’s musical interpretation became one of her most well-known songs and is considered today to be the first protest song of the Civil Rights era.
By 1959, Holiday’s career was on the decline. Years of drug and alcohol abuse had taken a toll on her physically, and she was a victim of domestic violence from her husband, mob enforcer Louis McKay. In March of that year, she gave one of her final performances at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in her hometown. It’s been written that she preferred smaller venues, because she liked to interact with her audience. But the performance at Emerson’s was insultingly small — roughly seven people in attendance.
“It’s really interesting the way this play is structured,” said Upton. “The playwright’s partner was in attendance and saw that she was clearly intoxicated. She struggled through 12 songs and left. But it was such a striking experience — to see such a monumental talent dismissed like that and reduced to what she was before she died. This is all captured really well in the show.”
In the play, Holiday performs 15 songs, including “Strange Fruit,” “When a Woman Loves a Man” and “Crazy He Calls me,” and tells stories about her life in between the music.
“What’s great is it captures the full scope of her life — her humor, her wit and her charm,” Upton said. “It doesn’t shy away from the dark aspects of her life, either. Throughout the show, we see her unravel — it’s 90 minutes of stream of consciousness. It’s really artfully done, to watch this really raw picture of a broken woman. But at the end of the day, in the face of all the brokenness, the abuse, the intimidation and persecution she faced [her activism made Holiday a target of the FBI in the 1940s and 50s], she never loses the essence of who she is.”
Upton calls “Lady Day” a tight show — the only break she gets is a seven- or eight-minute instrumental piece on the piano about halfway through the show. For Upton, the break is a time to get some water backstage and catch her breath. For Holiday, the break is an opportunity to feed her demons behind the curtain. When she returns to the stage, there is renewed confidence, in addition to slurred speech and a little stumbling.
“She returns in a more intoxicated state, but it’s important to me — and this is something I really work on with the dialect coach [in Chicago] — that my portrayal of her like this never veers into the realm of mockery,” Upton said. “Even in her darkest moments, she’s portrayed with a lot of respect. I studied her mannerisms and the way she moved and spoke while in that state — we want to be accurate and not silly in any way.”
Though the cast is officially only Upton and the pianist (the role had not been cast as of this publication), Upton said the audience is the unofficial “third actor” in the play because of the interactions Holiday has with them throughout.
“That’s one thing that helped me not be so nervous when I performed in Chicago,” she said. “You’re delivering your lines and you’re telling this story directly to them. So when I heard laughter, or groans or sympathy from the audience, it made it all feel very ‘alive’ and in the moment. The audience is super important to a show like this — they’re not just sitting in their seats; they’re participating.”
Upton will arrive in Sanford in early February to being rehearsals leading up to the Feb 23 opening. She said she’s excited to get to know the city — she’s read about “a vibrant downtown and lots of great places to eat” in studying up on her home for the next month.
“I’m also looking forward to a reprieve from Chicago winters,” she said, noting that it was snowing outside at that moment. “I’m looking forward to everything about this experience. I can’t wait to get there.”
Want to go?
Temple Theatre’s main stage production, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” will run from Feb. 23 to March 12. For ticket info and show times, visit templeshows.com.