'Because the world needs to know': Syracuse Stage actress reflects on portraying Billie Holiday
Syracuse Stage is presenting "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill." It chronicles Billie Holiday's life through the songs she performs at a small, intimate bar in Philadelphia in 1959.
Tracey Conyer Lee portrays Holiday. It's her seventh time playing the role and she says she's embracing the new storytelling and direction Director Jade Carroll took with the piece.
"It's just been a task stripping down and reapplying, maybe almost as difficult as learning it the first time, because it's a solo show —ultimately a solo show," Conyer Lee said. "So just learning it, 90 minutes of me and only me nonstop is a big task. So unlearning how I get through those 90 minutes and reapplying what it means in this context has been a challenge, a joy, and sometimes more the challenge."
Conyer Lee takes the audience on a journey for 90 minutes, standing on a small stage with a piano and bass accompaniment. She sings some of her romantic songs like "When a Woman Loves a Man" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" but she also gets personal, sharing some of her pain with the audience as she sings "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child."
"What I knew from the world and from media were the demons," Conyer Lee said. "And what I learned was the power and the strength in her and how the world informed the demons. And so I really wanted to take care of that story — take care of her in that way. And just make sure the greatness of her is offered to the world, not just the infamous stuff that we know about her."
Conyer Lee said it's a difficult and often draining piece to perform going through emotional highs and lows. She notes that in each iteration she continues to learn more about the piece as different things resonate in the text as the world changes around her. The storytelling is different than other plays.
"It's not an offering to the audience. She's really there for her. She's there, too. It's about getting things off her chest, and you all just happen to be there hearing it."
As for why and how Billie Holiday sings the songs she does...
"The why she says any of it is for the same reason that that I do it," Conyer Lee said. "Because the world needs to know. The world needs to know how the world works when it's not looking."
"Lady Day At Emerson's Bar and Grill" runs through November 5 at Syracuse Stage.