When Dael Orlandersmith said she wanted to write a play about a Danish white woman who loved Billie Holiday, people balked. Why would a black female playwright who has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her meditations on race, colorism and culture want to ... well, write outside of her race?
“I said, ‘Why can’t I write a white lady?” Orlandersmith told The Root in May. “Why can’t I go to Denmark? Why is it so farfetched for you?’”
Granted, Orlandersmith is far from the first black woman to write a white main character (see: Shonda Rhimes and Meredith Grey). And the premise for her resulting play, Lady in Denmark, was at least inspired by a black woman. As Holiday recounted in her 1956 memoir, Lady Sings the Blues, on her first European tour, which premiered in post-World War II Copenhagen on Jan. 18, 1954, she met a Danish doctor and his family. Noting that the singer was heavily dependent upon heroin, the doctor extended himself to Holiday, offering her lodging and treatment for her addiction, for which she was criminalized in the United States.
“[T]hey said, ‘Listen, we are huge fans of yours. We love you. You are not a criminal. You are an addict. Come live with us,’” recounted Orlandersmith. “And [Holiday] said, ‘Well, I just can’t up and do that.’”
Holiday would die four short years later.
Orlandersmith first read Lady Sings the Blues as a child. When she re-encountered the work seven or eight years ago, she thought, “I want to do something with this.’” Searches for the anonymous family, including outreach to the Danish consulate, were in vain. And so Orlandersmith imagined how life for the daughter, who would now be in her seventies, might have evolved from this single encounter into a life in which Holiday’s music was a constant soundtrack.
That idea would become Lady in Denmark, which made its world premiere in October at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Il., where the play is also set. The unknown Danish girl is reimagined as an older woman named Helene, reeling after the recent loss of her husband, and eager to recall their long and happy life together, likely in an effort to process her overwhelming grief.
But while Billie Holiday’s music is the catalyst and touchstone for much of Helene’s story, the entertainer herself remains as much a ghost as Helene’s lost husband, Lars, for whom she has just thrown a posthumous 80th birthday party when we are introduced to her on the stage of the Goodman’s Owen Theatre. And while Holiday is present in too-short snippets of music and Helene’s own girlish recollections, she is ultimately just a footnote in Helene’s story, which is performed as a one-woman show by veteran actress Linda Gehringer.
For this writer, viewing this through the lens of both this publication and my own identity, there seemed to be a bit of an allegory in that juxtaposition; of a black woman’s work and pathos as a vehicle for a white woman’s experience and happiness. That, coupled with Helene’s emotional recollections—told in both English and Danish and including universalities that transcend race—often verged on an earnestness that was, at times, unnerving.
In fact, Helene’s obsession with Billie Holiday and seeming virtuousness in regard to all things racial repeatedly caused me to wonder if Orlandersmith had effectively painted a portrait of a prototypical “nice white lady”—she of the “colorblind.” Compounding this was, of course, the fact that her main character hails from a country presented as an expat fantasy for black artists of a certain era—a well-documented occurrence, but one that conveniently ignores the fact that Europe has its own version of racism.
But if there is a profound truth to be gleaned from Lady in Denmark, it is the indelible impact and inextricability of black artistry from the white experience. In fact, it is a point driven home by Helene herself. As a new immigrant to this country, she recalls reconciling her lifelong love of the American-born art form known as jazz with the equally American proclivity for racism. How, she asks, can one ignore the richness of these contributions to American culture? How can you love the art, and hate the artist?
I found myself wondering the same as I left the theater, overhearing a fellow patron say, “if she said she loved Billie Holiday one more time...” For me, it was Holiday’s unsung story I likely would’ve loved to hear more of, instead of how her tragic life enriched someone else’s. Because the real question raised by the true story Lady in Denmark is based on is, what might her life have been if she’d accepted the offer of help?
Lady in Denmark runs at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre through November 19. Tickets are available here.