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How Karole Foreman ‘became’ freeFall’s Billie Holiday

Bill DeYoung



California's Karole Foreman is Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," onstage through April 24 at freeFall Theatre. Photo provided.

There are moments, many of them, in the freeFall Theatre production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, when it appears that actress and singer Karole Foreman has actually channeled Billie Holiday.

In Lanie Robertson’s play, the legendary jazz vocalist is performing in an intimate Philadelphia club, accompanied by a pianist (Jimmy Powers, played here by Damon Carter). She sings more than a dozen songs, and recounts the events of her life (the good, the bad and the horrifically ugly) to the audience.

“I see it as a triumphant story in spite of the circumstances that she came through,” Foreman tells the Catalyst. “Being sexually assaulted at 10 years of age. Her grandmother dying with her arms around her, traumatizing her. Being prostituted as a child. Being abandoned by her father. Her first love getting her addicted to substances.”

Lady Day is set in March, 1959, just a few months before Holiday died, an ex-con, junkie and an alcoholic. Indeed, she is sipping gin throughout the play, and as the stories go on, and the more juiced up Holiday gets, the darker and more erratic their telling becomes.

“In spite of all this,” Foreman says, “the music she was able to create! The life that she lived. The success that she was able to achieve, because of this instrument, this kind of anointing that she had.”

That instrument was Holiday’s supple, deeply emotive voice, which always seemed to rise above the pain and the circumstance.

“In the play Lanie has exquisitely put her saying ‘Singing is living to me.’ In a way, she’s transcending the circumstances of her life through her voice. That, to me, was my point of entry in terms of stepping into the spirit and the essence of Billie Holiday.

“To me, all language is musical. And it’s finding the rhythm of it.”

Audra McDonald won the Tony for Best Actress in a Play for the 2014 Broadway production of Lady Day. Other performers who have worn stage-Billie’s elegant white gown and elbow-length gloves include S. Epatha Merkerson (from TV’s Law & Order), Lonette McKee and Ernestine Jackson.

Based in Long Beach, California, Foreman has an impressive resume of stage and television work. She first tackled Lady Day in 2019, in a co-production with Ebony Repertory Theatre of Los Angeles (the freeFall version is directed by Ebony’s Wren T. Brown).

“I think I started preparing as soon as I’d heard about the show going around,” Foreman confesses. “In the back of my mind, I said to myself ‘wow, that would be an extraordinary role to tackle at some point.’

“Of course, then Audra McDonald goes on to win the Tony, then you had The United States vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu – I thought that was really an extraordinary performance. So there was absolutely no pressure!”

She worked with dialect coach Denise Woods to find Holiday’s speaking voice. “The intention wasn’t to do an imitation of Billie Holiday, but I do think that when you come to see such an iconic figure, there is an expectation of a certain sound,” Foreman says. “Or an approximation of a sound.”

Recordings exist of Holiday speaking. Her voice was low, whispery. Tired-sounding.

“Denise helped me find the character of the voice of the people that came before her,” Foreman explains. “Billie talks about her great-grandmother, who was born a slave, from Virginia. And in working on the film Underground, Denise happened to have collected all this audio of slaves from that period – that would have been where Billie’s great-granny was from.

“And the placement of their sound is all the same placement of Billie Holiday’s voice. I heard that, and something just really clicked, in terms of really finding that placement. This was her ancestral voice.”

And that unearthly singing voice? “I’ve listened to recordings where she’s forgotten lyrics, but she’s still right in. She’s inside of the music, it seems.”

In Lady Day, Holiday tells the audience that she taught herself to sing by listening to the records of blues singer Bessie Smith and trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

“She does sound like a horn,” says Foreman. “She sounds like an instrument. I go back and I still listen to her recordings, and there are still things where I’m thinking ‘God, how do she do that?’ Because she’s falling right in harmonically with the musicianship. There’s a breath, and a space.”

And, between the notes, a deep and palpable recognition that she got handed a raw deal. That’s what makes her iconic.

“One of the things Wren talks about constantly: Here we are still talking about this woman because of the brilliance of her artistry. Of her gift,” Foreman explains.

“And I’m thinking about what we know about addiction today. How might circumstances have been different for this woman if she hadn’t been – and I truly believe – singled out and villainized and made an example of.

“If she had gotten treatment for her addiction, how might her artistry have been different? Who else might she have collaborated with? What other innovations might she have made?”

Tickets for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill are here.




















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