Gwen Brazier wanted to bring the story to life for three reasons: she loves jazz, she loves Billie Holiday and she wanted to see more actors of color on Fairbanks stages.
With that in mind, Brazier and Interior Independent Theatre, the company she helped found along with Adam Kohl, sought to bring the tale of jazz, love, life and loss to Fairbanks. That story, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” opens Friday at Palace Theatre, in which the renowned Billie Holiday takes you on a journey of her life, her music and her trials.
“Jazz is where my heart is,” Brazier said. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities here for jazz, and this was a great chance to bring it to Fairbanks.”
Brazier is a music and orchestra teacher with the Fairbanks Independent School District and has taught theater as well. It is her passion for the genre, and for Billie Holiday, that pushed her to stage the production, which recounts Holiday’s life through song and tale. In the performance, Holiday is on stage at the seedy dive Emerson’s Bar & Grill in South Philadelphia in March 1959, performing one of her last shows before her death in July 1959. The cast is small — just Billie Holiday and her piano man, Jimmy Powers, who also tells stories of Holiday’s life.
Holiday’s music was always a part of Brazier’s life while growing up, Brazier said. Her dad moved to Harlem in 1949 as a child, and her aunt was a lounge singer who performed in many of the same New York clubs in which Holiday sang.
“Me and my sisters, we were in love with Billie from when she was high to when she was sober,” Brazier said. “And that’s one of the things I talk about as a music educator, the effects of drugs on the body and the vocal cords.”
The story is a deep look at Holiday’s life, Brazier said, spanning the singer’s birth and origins to what effected her professionally, “And eventually, what leads to her death,” she said. “And it works in this particular setting. You see the evolution of Billie throughout the show.”
Bringing the famed singer to life is actor LaQuita Deans, who knows she has a big role to portray. Deans worked with Brazier in “Avenue Q” in November 2018, so she was eager to take the stage again with the director. Originally from South Carolina and calling Fairbanks home for five years now, the Army veteran has also been seen in “The Crucible” at Fairbanks Drama Association as well as several other productions.
“She’s so iconic, obviously, because when you speak of Billie Holiday you know the iconicism,” Deans said. “What people don’t realize about this show is we’re dating Billie at a certain point in her life. But just to portray her in any time frame is intimidating.”
To get in the mindset of Holiday’s mannerisms and sound, Deans, who also is a fan, delved into the singer’s songs, public appearances and stories, absorbing what she could of Holiday’s life.
And she feels some pressure, too, since it’s just her as Holiday and Rick Walburn as her pianist, Jimmy.
“In shows where there is a larger cast, you get to feed off the other cast members’ energy,” Deans said. “That’s what makes it challenging because it’s just me and every now and then I communicate with Jimmy, so it’s just me. I’m creating the energy. I have to keep everyone entertained, and that’s what I want to convey. We want to convey you’re in a night club at one of Billie’s shows. I’m super excited to show Fairbanks this.”
Both Brazier and Deans say the story is relevant to today’s world in that things Billie faced — drug and alcohol abuse, discrimination, police harassment — are still issues communities of color struggle with. One of the ways to tell those stories is through theater with actors of color sharing those stories.
“It’s a pointed look at the struggles we had in the 1940s and the struggles we’re having now,” Brazier said. “Despite all the horrible things that happened in her life, music kept her going. ... To have a show where we can have our African-American community and people of color communities, this lets them know they can show up.”
Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or at twitter.com/FDNMfeatures.
If You Go
What:“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” directed by Gwen Brazier, produced by Interior Independent Theatre
Where: Palace Theatre in Pioneer Park, 2300 Airport Way
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 26.
Tickets: Tickets are $25 each, available online at www.interiorindependenttheatre.org.
FYI: Ages 21 and older as beer and wine are available for purchase. Production contains adult language and themes.
Billie Holiday — LaQuita Deans
Jimmy Powers — Rick Walburn
Bass — Leon Butler
Sound designer — Josh Bennet
Lighting designer — Deirdre Sagers
Director — Gwendolyn P. Brazier
Stage manager — Flyn Ludington
Production manager — Amanda Torgerson
Producer — Interior Independent Theatre