Congo Square Theatre mounts this production at eta Creative Arts on Chicago’s South Side with Alexis J. Roston reprising her award-winning performance as Billie Holiday. And for good reason. Watching Roston as Billie Holiday is a transcendent experience.
The big question, in a piece like this, is the lead actor’s impression of the iconic Holiday. In what is almost a one-woman show, a stilted, inauthentic or over-the-top imitation would be unredeemable. In Roston’s case, the impression is flawless, and I don’t use that word lightly. There is not a note out of place: Roston is Billie, comfortable enough in an iconic voice to bring herself to it, to play a little. Roston’s personalization of Holiday’s standouts, including “God Bless the Child” and the haunting “Strange Fruit” as well as Bessie Smith’s “Pigfoot,” evokes Billie even more so, giving us a performance that feels lived in and true. It is impossible to say where Roston ends and Billie begins, and the result is captivating.
Written by Lanie Robertson, the script itself is powerful and well-articulated by director Shanèsia Davis. Most can identify Holiday’s voice on a classic song but the depth of her story is rarely explored. Between songs, Robertson’s script exposes Holiday’s drug use, incarceration and a series of abusive partners, in addition to the many racial injustices she faced. From songs that she and other black artists were not allowed to sing, to a searing account of discrimination at a restaurant, the writing is deeply personal, humanizing a legend and giving an infuriating perspective on the treatment she endured.
The production itself has a few missed opportunities. Technical stumbles in pre-show meant the piece took a song or two to settle in. As Billie’s pianist Jimmy Powers, Anderson Edwards accompanies Roston with skill but the relationship is underdeveloped, lacking in tension and fails to provide helpful context for Holiday’s immediate emotional circumstances.
But for Roston’s performance, all other shortcomings fade into the background, making Congo Square’s production a must-see. (Erin Shea Brady)
Congo Square Theatre at eta Creative Arts, 7558 South Chicago, (773)296-1108, congosquaretheatre.org, $35. Through October 7.