Being Billie Holiday: Local actress takes on role of lifetime as iconic singer

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LaRaisha Burnette as Billie Holiday in 'Lady Day at Emersons Bar and Grill.' Photo courtesy Mark Steelman.
LaRaisha Burnette as Billie Holiday in ‘Lady Day at Emersons Bar and Grill.’ Photo courtesy Mark Steelman.

LaRaisha Burnette used to think she had tackled the most daunting task an actor can take on– disrobing, on stage and in front of an audience, no less.

That was, until she took up the challenge of becoming Billie Holiday. Tonight, Burnette will don the signature white gardenia and step into the stoplight to portray the iconic, often complex, near mythological jazz songstress.

The local actress–by way of New York City–stars in the one-woman production, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which runs June 11 through 28 at Red Barn Studio Theatre, 1122 S. Third St. The play recounts the ups and downs of Holiday’s turbulent life, as told by “Billie” herself on the stage of a jazz club and in between numbers.

“I was in the New Year’s production of ‘Hair,’ and I had to get naked on stage…That’s everybody’s biggest fear, right, being naked on stage? These days, I’ve been saying, ‘Yeah, I’d rather be back in ‘Hair,'” Burnette joked.

It’s not that the 29-year-old performer didn’t jump at the chance to take on the role of Billie Holiday. An accomplished jazz singer in her own right–and one-half of the dynamic girl duo, LaCi–has a voice sultry and seasoned enough to step in for Lady Day.

“We definitely have a similar vocal quality, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been interesting trying to get her sound,” Burnette said. “There’s this brightness to her voice that I have always admired. And that’s hard to get just right.”

And it’s not just Holiday’s voice Burnette hopes to perfect.

“I want this performance to be as much of her spirit as I can get. That’s been the fun part and the scary part,” she said.

Under the direction of Thalian Association Community Theatre’s artistic director, David Loudermilk, Burnette began rehearsing in earnest only a few weeks ago.

But for more than a month, she has immersed herself in everything Billie to prepare for the stage.

“When you’re doing a one-person show, a lot of rehearsal really comes from the homework,” Burnette noted.

She listens to Holiday in the car and at work, spends her free time doing Google searches of the singer, even dreams about her at night.

“David and I joke every day that we’ve become experts on Billie Holiday,” she said. “But there is something every day that we learn that we didn’t know before.”

But one thing Burnette has learned through this experience is that stars, even those as big as the bigger-than-life Billie Holiday, struggle as we all do through life.

And that, she said, brings her confidence ahead of opening night.

“People don’t realize I’ve never had a lead role before…There will never be a role that will be as big as this for me,” she said. “But a lot of her story resonates with me. You know, you think when life gives you lemons, you’re the only one with lemons. So, to see someone like her–she’s a goddess to me, an angel–that has influenced me so much has really experienced some tough times in life is inspiring.”

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $25 and are available through etix.com.