The Heartbreaking Billie Holiday, Front & Center

One of the most recognizable names in American jazz is Billie Holiday who effortlessly conveyed heartbreak, longing and tragic loss like no other singer thanks to her unique voice and phrasing. Despite a turbulent life, abusive relationships, drug addiction and blatant racism, she prevailed to become one of the greatest jazz and blues artists of all time and sold out her show at Carnegie Hall.

Writer/Performer Sybil D. Jatta brings the iconic Lady Day to life in this outstanding one-woman show in which she plays an array of characters, including young Billie, her mother, a policeman, her drug dealer, and adult Billie. Miss Jatta’s interest in Holiday was sparked during the open casting call for the 1997 national touring production of Sang Sista, Sang, produced by Smokey Robinson and B’Anca (who also masterfully directs this play). She auditioned for the role of Bessie Smith, but afterwards B’Anca encouraged her to try out for Holiday’s role and won the part. Jatta has also appeared on stage in The Music Man, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as in the films Deliver Us from Eva and Lifetime’s Strong Medicine.

Billie Holiday: Front and Center tells the singer’s life story interwoven with some of her most popular songs, such as God Bless the Child, Strange Fruit, and Good Morning Heartache (plus some original compositions by Miss Jatta) and accompanied by a terrific live band fronted by music director Casey McCoy on piano, Michael Saucier on Bass, Lance Lee on drums and Louis Van Taylor (keeping his own with the melancholic saxophone). Jatta embodies the essence of Billie with dignity and without losing her own individual brand of singing. Her voice is strong and warm and her ability to express a lyric is moving. She reaches deep within and carefully pulls out the most tender and rawest of emotions felt by Holiday. One of the most impressive numbers in the play is Junk in My Veins, when Billie, alone in her cell, is illuminated only by moonlight. The audience felt her pains and many were brought to tears.

— Victor Riobo

“Billie Holiday: Front and Center” by Sybil D. Jatta (backed up by a live jazz combo) at WACO Theater Center, 5144 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601. Fri. and Sat. at 8:00. Ends August 18.