Front and Center
Total Rating: 
November 4, 2017
December 3, 2017
Los Angeles
Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center
Theater Type: 
Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center
Theater Address: 
4305 Degnan Boulevard
Running Time: 
2 hrs
Solo Cabaret Bio
Book: Sybil Harris
B'Anca [sic]

Sybil Harris sure knows her way around Billie Holiday’s music. The Phoenix native first portrayed Holiday in the touring musical, Sang Sista Sang. Now she is impersonating Holiday again in her solo show Billie Holiday, which just opened at Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in south-central L.A. Harris also wrote and executive-produced the show, which gives her a chance to sing some of Holiday’s greatest hits, among them “God Bless the Child,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Good Morning Heartache” and “Strange Fruit,” backed up by a terrific jazz quartet.

Clad in a dazzling array of costumes, white camellia pinned to her hair, Harris captures Holiday’s unique essence, her way of staying within a single octave’s range but broadening its charge by a series of small but effective devices—and of course by her dramatic intensity and emotion. As jazz critic Gary Giddins said, “Her voice retained its enchantment, a lapsed beauty, a thin, pure noble siren gleam.”

In telling Holiday’s turbulent and tragic life story—she died penniless at 44—Harris touches on many of its important points: mother a prostitute, being raped at ten, growing up in a brothel, fighting her way up through a rough, tough, segregated society to make her mark as a singer. Success came when she sang at the Cotton Club, met Artie Shaw, recorded with Count Basie and Lester Young . At one time she made as much as a quarter of a million dollars a year, only to blow most of it on drink, men and drugs.

In one of the best scenes in the play, Harris recreates the first time a drug dealer (also played by her) sweet-talks her into trying heroin. The resulting addiction resulted in jail time imposed by a puritanical and vengeful society which was especially hard on black musicians and singers. Holiday, after two years in a Federal prison, returned to the jazz world and triumphed in a Carnegie Hall concert, only to be betrayed by her failing health.

Billie Holiday incarnates her indictment of the world as well as the spirit and dignity the singer sustained through all its blows.

The Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center is a fitting place for a show like Billie Holiday. Artistic Director Barbara Morrison is a famous jazz and blues singer herself, and the center is located in Leimert Square, once the focal point of L.A.’s illustrious black history. Up through the 1950s, the nearby area was jumping round the clock with jazz and blues clubs, soul-food restaurants, theatres, movie houses and businesses of all kinds. When L.A. was finally de-segregated, it spelled the end of that remarkable period, but some flashes of greatness remain, such as Barbara Morrison’s center, the World Stage jazz club, and Ese Won Bookstore. And just recently Morrison raised enough funds to open the California Jazz and Blues Museum, which sits just a few doors from her center. There you will find jazz paintings, photos, artifacts (such as Stax Hooper’s drum kit), diaromas, and sculptures from the heyday of black L.A. Prominent is a portrait of Lady Day herself.

Sybil Harris
Set: Timothy Morganfeld. Sound: Kenneth Williams. Production Stage Manager: B'Anca.
Willard Manus
Date Reviewed: 
November 2017