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.

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

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

AM: I was about 10 or 11, and I heard “God Bless the Child.” I remember thinking her voice was, um, interesting. And wondering: Is she sleepy? I didn’t realize this until later, but Billie’s speaking voice is very similar to my grandmother’s, with certain phrases, certain Southern-isms. That was kind of my way in when I started working on the role. But it wasn’t until I was older that I really started to appreciate who she was and her incredible artistry.

TR: Are there particular works of scholarship on Billie Holiday that you consulted?

AM: There was a woman back in the 1970s, named Linda Kuehl, who interviewed lots of people in Billie’s life, looking to write a book about her. She never ended up finishing it. Several people have tried to put all those interviews together in a book. Donald Clarke did a book called Wishing on the Moon. Another woman, named Julia Blackburn, wrote a book called With Billie. That’s been my favorite.

[It’s] between those and me getting in touch with people who knew her, like Dr. Maya Angelou and Corky Hale, one of her last pianists. I’ve read every book there is [on Billie], but those were the most helpful to me.

TR:  What song would you say is the most difficult to portray? Not technically, but because of its lyrical and emotional content.

AM: I guess you’d have to say “Strange Fruit,” don’t you?

TR: I guess.

AM: You’d have to say it because you could sing that song in a myriad of different ways. I could see someone today—not that this is bad—banging their chest as they’re singing the lyrics. Then there’s Billie’s way. She wasn’t going after an effect. The song states observations and facts. And from that comes the … emotional impact. It’s almost as if a reporter is just reporting what they see. And that’s what’s so horrifying and so powerful.  

So I remind myself to just state the facts, which is kind of the way she sang it. She never made it a big, overwrought thing.