Audra McDonald Soars as the Legendary Billie Holiday

In a Q&A with The Root, the performer, who has just been nominated for a Tony Award, describes her apprehensiveness about and preparation for this extraordinary role.

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Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City

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Audra McDonald’s Tony nomination this week for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her work in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill isn’t a surprise to anyone who has seen her channel Billie Holiday. I did, closing my eyes during the performance, imagining that I was in Philadelphia in 1959 listening to Lady Day. This performance by McDonald—who is rightfully celebrated as one of our most accomplished contemporary stage and concert artists—captures Holiday’s style so well that it’s almost frightening.

In this interview, The Root peers into the creative process of a modern master, who, if she wins another Tony this year, will have received the most by any actor ever.

The Root: When and why did you decide to take on this role?

Audra McDonald: A very good friend of mine, who has also directed me in a few shows over the years, Lonnie Price, brought it up to me about two years ago. He said, “This is something we were going to do in London with Vanessa Williams, but that fell through and she’s got other commitments. Do you think it’s something that you might be interested in?”

I took a look at the script and said, “Wow, this looks incredibly difficult. And I don’t know if I can pull this off.” But I’m a sucker for a challenge, so I was like, OK.

TR: What looked difficult? What did you find so daunting?

AM: Because she’s such an iconic, historic character. If I played Harriet Tubman—who existed, but we don’t have a lot of record of how she sounded and how she spoke—I could interpret it my way. But with Billie Holiday, there’s so much historical documentation, video and audio. And she’s famous for, more than anything, her iconic sound. So I wasn’t sure if it was something I could find in my voice. That was the thing that scared me the most.

TR: Yet you so powerfully captured, even channeled, her voice, sound and manner of speaking. What process did you go through to achieve that?

AM: A lot of studying, a lot of driving my poor husband crazy with sharing every tidbit there was about her. And also going to bed, night after night, playing her singing and speaking voice in my ears. It was the last thing I’d hear before falling asleep, and the first thing I’d hear waking up. I absolutely immersed myself in her life, her voice and her sound. That’s what I’ve been doing, on and off, for the last year and a half.

TR:  Do you remember the first time you heard Billie Holiday and how she struck you?