During the film, we witness Holidays battle with addiction as a consequence of the abuse she experienced at the hands of the men in her life, contrasted by a tender, albeit hypothetical, relationship that unfolds with Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an undercover FBN agent sent to spy on her. The script, based on a chapter from Johann Haris book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (Bloomsbury, 2015), was written by the Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parksa student of literary legend James Baldwin. Its a great lesson in why women telling womens, particularly Black women telling Black womens stories, is imperative, explains Day. No one else will see and understand it with such depth and nuance.
Here, the 36-year-old actor describes how she got to the heart of Holiday in order to authentically embody her.
Your stage name is partly inspired by Holiday's nickname, Lady Day. Where did you first encounter her music and how has she influenced you as an artist?
My musical theatre instructor suggested I listened to Billie Holiday when I was 11 and looking for singers to study. I remember thinking, Ugh, I don't want to study a male singerI don't know who this dude Billy Holiday is. [laughs] Of course, when I heard Sugar, I knew Billie was a woman. Her voice, her tone, her phrasing was nothing like the great singers I was used to such as Whitney Houston, Aretha [Franklin], Gladys [Knight], Patti [LaBelle] or Chaka [Khan]. It reminded me of a train thats about to come off the tracks, but never quite does. From then on, I was hooked.
When did you learn about Holiday being persecuted by the FBN and what was happening in your own life at that time?
I was 19 or 20 when I really understood how the government tried to silence her. I was reconciling being a Black woman in the US, and through reading about and listening to Billie, I realised there had been multiple wars on drugs. We still have drugs, but we dont have Billie Holiday. We still have drugs, but we dont have [civil-rights activist] Medgar Evers or any of these great Black influencers. And then it crystallises: the war on drugs is a war on us. The war on drugs was crafted to take Billie down.
Blood on the leaves, blood at the root, always stood out to me. Damu means blood in Swahili and in my song I put damu at these roots because I saw it as life soaking into the roots of the trees, fertilising, strengthening and creating healthy fruit. Its about connecting the diaspora.
What do you think are the most widespread misconceptions of Holiday?
I hate it when people say she was a complicated figure because that's a polite way of saying she was difficult or troubled. What the hell is complicated about her? She was a Black queer woman trying to live peacefully and freely and truthfully. But unfortunately, she was living in the 1920s to 1950s, so its really the era that was complicated. The government going after Billie for singing Strange Fruit; men stealing from and physically abusing her; being raped at 14; her father dying [as a result] of Jim Crow lawsthats complicated!
Meeting people in recovery from addiction was an important part of your character study. What did you learn from this experience?
When we talk about drugs, everyone thinks of parties, but with heroin, you're trying to escape trauma. From spending time with recovering addicts, I learned that youre trying to get well; youre trying to put the battery in your back so, in Billies case, she could go on stage and sing. Theres a line in the movie where she says, [in reference to Strange Fruit] Ive got to be pretty high to sing that one. Its no wonder she needed some kind of assistance. Drug addiction needs to be a mental health conversation.
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