Ministerial Muses.4.11.18

Posted April 1st, 2018 by anna and filed in Manatee County, FL, Ministerial Muses
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Beyond Lady Day and Emerson’s Bar and Grill

I was lucky enough to see Nina Simone sing Strange Fruit at The Village Gate in 1970. And I listened to Billie Holiday’s recordings of it so many times I had every nuance memorized. So when I heard Melba Moore say that she didn’t try to imitate Billie Holiday for her portrayal of Billie at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, I was relieved. Little did I know …

At first, I told my friend Bernie that I didn’t want to go see another rendition of Billie’s down and out life and career. Years ago, I came to believe that most of that is just people ripping her off in death like they did in life. (The sound of Billie’s plaintiff voice, coming from an old 78 as I cried, got me through one of the worst times in my life. Her artistry is sacred to me.) But after seeing In The Heights earlier this year, I told Bernie that I thought we should give WBTT a chance. She managed to get us two seats for this afternoon’s performance, just before the play sold out.

The theatre was set up like a small cabaret. I was confused in the beginning about whether to respond to the production as a cabaret performance or a stage play. I pulled my natural enthusiasm in and followed the audience’s lead. I felt they were a little restrained but I heard a gentleman (not of color) say to his companion on the way out, “That was really something.” “Billie’s still changing lives”, I thought.

By the time Levi Barcourt (as Jimmy Powers) nudged “Billie” into Strange Fruit with his piano, there was no Billie Holiday, no Nina Simone, no Melba Moore. There was only the energy of the moment. Ms. Moore’s voice wrapped itself around my heart as the tears poured down my face. At the end of the show, what happened to Billie Holiday in her short life is very clear. It is also very clear that the only time she was free of the pain it caused her was when she was singing — and someone was listening, really listening.

Part of the power of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is probably because people of color still deal with the oppression of racism. The unique creative window this highly-talented group has opened is getting a lot of support, both from within and without, because of the tremendous opportunities that window makes possible. I have seen three productions now. While all three have dealt with racial issues (I am Caucasian) without mincing words, they have all taken audiences to a place of universal response to the core experiences of being a human being. All three times, I have recognized myself in the anger, fear, and struggle to survive it all. Kudos and gratitude to Ms. Moore for riding that wave to such an extraordinary level.

© 2018 Anna Jedrziewski and Spirit Connection New York, Inc.

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