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?
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.
TR: Were there any other portrayals of Billie Holiday that you checked out, say, Dee Dee Bridgewater in Lady Day or Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues?
AM: I was on tour during Dee Dee’s show. I hadn’t seen Lady Sings the Blues since I was a kid. I purposely stayed away from both of those. In the same way that Billie says you have to sing the song your way, I can’t do what they did. I’m sure Diana and Dee Dee studied her within an inch of their lives, and they inhabited her in their own way, through their own vessel. And it was the same with me.
TR: What would you like readers of The Root to know about who Billie Holiday was and what she represents?
AM: She was much more than just that drug-addicted singer. She was a deeply generous, beautiful, smart, real human being, a pioneer. She was one of the first civil rights activists, whether she realized it or not. Her legacy cannot be overstated.
Editor’s note: McDonald is appearing in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City now through Aug. 10, 2014.