BILLIE'S BLUESby Dianne Tucker
DVA Productions, Inc.
Directed by Sheran Goodspeed Keyton
Music Director - Lucky Peterson
Set Design - David Ruffin, Sheran Keyton
Lighting Design - Nikki Deshea
Costume Design - Sheran Goodspeed Keyton
Stage Manager - Andria Buckner
Tamara Stovall Peterson - Billie Holiday
Tyrone King - Donathan James
Alejandro Serrano Ayuso - Piano Man
Reviewed Performance: 11/11/2011
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Hers was a hard scrap life of abandonment, prostitution, alcohol and drugs. When she sang she laid her life's story on the stage for all to see and hear. Holiday wrote many of her own songs, including the soulful "God Bless the Child".
For those whose only exposure to Billie Holiday is through the film "Lady Sings the Blues" with Diana Ross, then you haven't met the real Billie Holiday. While Ms. Ross' version was glamorous and pretty, DVA Productions' tribute called Billie's Blues was to the point raw and real. All the niceties had been scrapped away and the audience got the opportunity to understand exactly why "Lady Day" had the right to sing the blues.
Written by diannetucker, Billie's Blues is equal parts play and cabaret as it journeys through Ms. Holiday's life, pinpointing the plot from age fourteen to her death. It all takes place in a small New York City dive where Holiday sang in the 1930's. Currently owned by Donathan James, a man raised on Billie Holiday, he narrates on her life while reminiscing from his scrapbook.
As he catches the audience up on her beginnings to where the public first hears of her, she steps out from the shadows in full performance regalia ? white satin gown, fur and her signature gardenia ? filling in the juicy parts of his stories. Ms. Holiday speaks directly to the audience, sometimes right in their face, offering no explanation for all the rumors of her life or apologies for her many and sordid famous relationships. Paraphrasing her, she spouted, "I can't recall most of `em and I've been dead over 50 years now so we'll just say it all happened and leave it at that".
Accompanied on keyboard piano by the Piano Man, Holiday uses her songs and memories to tell her story, and alongside James' narration a truer, richer, more enticing account of the life of Billie Holiday emerges.
The set design by David Ruffin and Sheran Keyton, placed on a low staging area in the small black box theatre, was low budget, basic furnishings to depict the old dive. The walls were papered/painted with scrolls and curly Q's in teal colors. A thin fabric piece covered the window. Two paintings of Billie hung on the wall, one on black velvet. An old armchair and side table were set up as James' living room while the piano, a tall-backed stool and old-time microphone with stand more represented her old performance space. The lighting design by Nikki Deshea was also basic cabaret style ? dim blue light, generic washes, and two spots was pretty much all that was needed.
Ms. Tucker's script began a bit weakly, and while I understood the premise of going back and forth in time, the character of James didn't add to the performance, and in places, slowed down the rhythm and timing of the piece - having him stand, be spotlighted to narrate, then sit down, over and over again. Reminiscing in the chair might have made it all flow better. Tyrone King made a dapper owner of one of Billie's old haunts, with a powerful vocal quality to easily reach the back of the theatre.
Piano Man accompanied Holiday through all of the evening's songs and Alejandro Serrano Ayuso was equal to the task. The play's "overture" set the evening's blues/jazz tone but if it was written to showcase his playing it was unnecessary and way too long. Ayuso deftly proved his talent in the way he coaxed the music out of that small keyboard. His bridge solos were loaded with down and dirty blues rolls and jazzy riffs, and he never once overpowered the singing as so often happens. Not that he could in this instance.
There are a multitude of singers here who could give Billie Holiday's songs credence but to believably portray her from a young age to her early death takes more than just a good singer. It requires, no, demands a deep understanding of and empathy for the woman's complex and tragic life.
Putting all else aside, you only need one reason to go see Billie's Blues and that is to witness the impeccable work and incredible performance by Tamara Stovall Peterson as Billie Holiday. This singer/actor crawled into Billie's skin and surrendered herself to the character with such reverence, and yet such rawness, the audience might question where Peterson left off and Holiday began. Entering as adult Holiday, sleepy-eyed and off kilter, ballsy and foul-mouthed, Peterson reverted back to the wide-eyed young girl left out in the world to survive on her own wits, then to literally finding her voice, going through all the high ups and low downs of her career, to her self-induced end.
Peterson's acting was so intricate ? subtle facial expressions bore Holiday's pain and she flipped to wild, sassy explosions with no s*xual inhibitions in true "Tain't Nobody's Bizness if I Do" flaunting style. Precise movements were mesmerizing ? slowly flowing backwards to the stool, the way she leaned on it in the early years then had to heavily sit on it as she aged, or her expressions of exuberance in her youth crumbling to detachment as her life took its toll. Peterson aged literally before our eyes, all the while in that satin gown and gardenia to remind us how we wished to remember her.
Billie's Blues' song choices supported her story, including "Nice Work If You Can Get It" during her prostitution years, "Don't Explain" and "Good Morning Heartache" for her many losses, and the very controversial "Strange Fruit", a heart-stabbing song about lynchings that she sang at great danger to her own life.
Peterson rolled the songs around in her mouth, like tasting honey, and poured them out in that lazy Holiday way. Words blasted out or were sucked back in to be barely audible ? the give and take, the nuance and boldness ? rounded out the essential Billie.
A fabulous singer/actress in her own right, Director Sheran Goodspeed Keyton honed the play and Peterson's already immense talent to fine-tuned perfection, and delivered a beautifully sung, beautifully played and powerfully acted performance from all three onstage.
Billie's Blues is another deliverance of sorts in being DVA Productions' first show of their first season and first production in their new space, the Pantagleize Theatre in Fort Worth. Taking that giant leap of faith, DVA broadens to four Mainstage productions from only one a year during its gypsy wanderings. The next will be one close to Keyton's heart, The Laramie Project, with presentation by Fort Worth City Councilman and gay rights activist Joel Burns. Apparently taking on possible controversy and a strong show like this doesn't daunt Sheran Goodspeed Keyton. In naming her company DVA Productions, taking the "I" out of diva, she grandly removes focus off her and on to presenting meaningful theatre.
So here's a toast to their first season, and optimism that it continues or exceeds the level of excellence presented with Billie's Blues.
I cannot emphasize enough that with the last four performances coming this weekend, an enjoyable play and a stellar performance awaits you only a short trek away.
DVA Productions, 1400 Henderson Street, Fort Worth, TX 76102
LIMITED RUN through November 20th
Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Saturday/Sunday matinees at 3:00pm. Tickets are $20 evenings and $15 matinees.
For info and to purchase tix go to www.dvaproductions.org or go to 817-313-3052.