To borrow a phrase out of a song from the musical Annie, Billie Holiday had a hard knock life. Born in April 1915, she was the daughter of an unwed teenage couple in Philadelphia.
But, according to Monica Cantrell, who will portray Holiday in the Fonseca Theatre Company's production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, it was because the jazz singer triumphed over adversity that we remember her music.
“She chose to sing songs that she connected to,” says Cantrell. “If she didn’t feel it, if it didn’t speak to her, she didn’t sing it. So it was very personal for her and that helps all of us through the good times and the bad times of our own lives. And, so, there’s a huge lesson to be learned in that.”
Cantrell portrayed Holiday in the same production in The Phoenix Theatre’s 1991-92 season, says she brings an understanding “on a deeper level what life is about” to this current production, which is running through April 7 and is being staged at the Linebacker, 2631 W. Michigan St.
As it happens, this is the second production with Cantrell in the lead under Producing Director Bryan Fonseca’s watch. The difference is that now Fonseca has his own theater company, which he started after leaving the Phoenix Theater in May 2018.
The one-woman play intersects 14 classic songs sung by Cantrell in the persona of Holiday with a monologue written by Lanie Robertson The pianist is Jon Stombaugh, and the play is directed by Dena Toler.
The venue, The Linebacker, is an actual bar rather than a theater. So it shouldn’t be much of a stretch for an audience member to imagine the titular bar where Holiday gave one of her final performances in 1959, shortly before her death due to congestive heart failure, at 44.
“The play itself is set four months before she actually passed in reality, and written after her passing,” says Cantrell. “But the playwright wanted to give some sense of where she was at that time in her life and how she got there.”
But, according to Cantrell, there’s too much emphasis paid to the tragic aspect of Holiday’s life.
“I didn’t find her to be tragic at all,” she says. “Because things happen to all of us in life but that doesn’t define who we are as a person. She persevered and she still continued to do what she loved to do which was singing. That was her motivation; that was her life’s blood and she never gave up on that.”
Even though there have been some pauses from the stage in her own life, the Indianapolis-born Cantrell never gave up on theater.
“I was born and raised here,” she says, “and I did a lot of work early on in my career, but I moved away. So I’ve just come back here recently in the last couple of years. I have had some family responsibilities that I have dealt with in these more recent years so this is actually my first time back on stage or in performing in a long while.”
In addition to performing at the Phoenix, Cantrell performed at The American Cabaret Theatre which was located for some time at The Athenaeum. (The American Cabaret Theatre was re-branded as The Cabaret in 2009 and is now located at 924 N. Pennsylvania St.)
During her initial performance of Lady Day, Cantrell says she recalls people telling her that she needed to bring something of herself to the role.
“My response to that is, ‘I can’t help but do that,’” she says. “I’m channeling the words and whatnot but because of her unique and recognizable style, I felt it was important that, if I’m going to tell her story, I can to try and mimic her singing style, because the idea is that she’s in this bar performing. So I try and give the audience a sense of what that would have been like.”
It’s hard for Cantrell to pick a favorite Holiday song out of the 14 she sings in the performance.
“I would say 'Don’t Explain' is one of them, even though its telling a story of a lover who hasn’t been true; how many of us go through those experiences, right?” continues Cantrell. “And it’s so beautifully written and poignantly written. ... And there’s one that closes the show; it’s called “Deep Song”.
Cantrell also sings the song “Strange Fruit,” written originally by Abel Meeropol as a poem in 1937. The song is a protest against the lynchings against African Americans rampant at that time, particularly in the Deep South. But it was a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith—that took place in Marion, Indiana in 1930—that initially prompted his lyrics.
Cantrell believes the song is just as relevant now as when it was first written.
“There are still atrocities that happen, not only in regard to differences of race, but across the spectrum; sexual, gender, right?” she says. “Elderly ... all these things we need to stay aware of and continue to correct.”