quot;Lady sings the bluesquot; at Berklee College

by Beacon Staff • September 23, 2009

In its fifth year running the festival, the music school has organized a jam-packed week of exciting musical performances and it hardly seems fair to force audiences to choose between them.,This week, the Berklee College of Music will be jazzing it up with the ninth annual BeanTown Jazz Festival: the largest and most anticipated outdoor celebration in Boston.

In its fifth year running the festival, the music school has organized a jam-packed week of exciting musical performances and it hardly seems fair to force audiences to choose between them.

One performance they deftly scheduled without competition, however, is Love and Hunger: The Life and Music of Billie Holiday; a theatrical tribute to the brilliantly passionate-albeit bleak-legacy

of the renowned African-American jazz singer.

The show was orchestrated by a trio of Berklee professors in a collaboration between two classes at the college, the advanced theater production workshop and the Billie Holiday ensemble.

Emerson alumnus and dramaturge Amy Merrill ('93) and former Emerson faculty member Rebecca Perricone both taught the advanced workshop, while percussion prodigy Terri Lyne Carrington coached the ensemble cast.

"There's kind of been a movement towards doing more theater at Berklee," Merrill said in an interview. "Students come to Berklee and there just aren't enough activities-but that's changing. Their clubs and professors are doing more."

Despite the limited number of theater courses offered, the progress of musical drama has become a natural step forward.

Following the success of Merrill's theatrical production SILVER SPOON last spring, the three professors quickly decided to include Love and Hunger in the Jazz festival. Much of the script was written by the students themselves, interwoven from original sketches, interviews, and a book Billie Holiday ghost-wrote entitled Lady Sings the Blues.

The musical arrangements are Carrington's own, from her original London production of a Billie Holiday tribute entitled Billie Me, which starred such notables as Amy Winehouse, Dianne Reeves, and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

The original version of Berklee's adaptation was to feature Bridgewater, but in her stead Carrington decided to cast professor Kudisan Kai, a celebrated jazz vocalist who has recorded with acts like Elton John and Diana Ross, and whose influences reverberate much closer to the college's heart.

Nonetheless, Dee Dee came to play a small, thrilling part in the production process.

"In the short time that she was here, she did individual training sessions, gave emotional support and hugs to those who needed it, and kind of brought the star power," Merrill said.

The Tony Award-winning singer-actress also talked about her experience on stage as Billie Holiday, and gave the students a professional perspective.

From the highest heights of stage experience to the drama-desperate Berklee students, the cast is by no means homogeneous.

Some of the younger talent listed on program are first-timers to the acting stage.

"We put them together, and yeah, we tried to find a through line," Merrill said. "And we just kept talking and talking and talking.we had to touch on a lot of things."

From childhood abuse, cocaine addictions, and failed marriages, to ghost writing a book, the play covers an impressive span of Billie's life, and with chilling depth.

Actor and singer Cleveland Jones, the recent recipient of a degree in professional music at Berklee, plays Jimmy-one of Billie's three corrupt husbands-and described his experience in Love and Hunger as unexpectedly rewarding.

"I was confused when I auditioned, because I'm not a black woman," Jones quiped in an interview. "But they finagled it to include many characters of Billie's life, and as many as they could include...This opportunity has really opened doors for me, and I'm hoping to take that and turn it into greater things."

Jones audited the class despite having graduated in May, and at the culmination of this performance she plans on returning to Atlanta, where he received his BA in Theater at Morehouse College, to further purse his on-stage career.

Jones had reason to be confused-even the part of Billie is played by a number of different actresses. "There's no one Billie, there are many Billies, and as you see there are Billies who are black, Latina, and then Bri," Merrill noted, referring to Caucasian cast member Brianne Crawford.

The varied ensemble cast, including Jess Delago, Naquisia Henesey, Jennifer Manzanillo, and Nadia Washington-each as Billie in separate scenes-was an integral part of their work from the outset; the multifaceted collaboration of actors provides a purposeful focus in the depiction of the artist's layered complexities.

While a seamless portrayal of Holiday through these contradictory personas seems difficult, nearly each of the actors have a soulful, sultry confidence in their ability to embody her.

Those without years of stage experience seem to have picked up Holiday's character with ease, perhaps attributable to their comfortability in performing music. What they should lack in dramatic finesse, they more than make up for in stunning vocal acrobatics.

The raw talent present in the cast of Love and Hunger is enough to lift crowds out of their seats by the curtain call; and Berklee's unique portrayal of Billie Holiday's life as celebratory in achievements, rather than ransacked by failure, poses a refreshing, yet encompassing examination into her life and its works. In the final scene, as Billie is being carried off by the police, Nadia Washington dignifiedly delivers her closing line: "Just remember the day you were privileged enough to escort Lady Day."