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BWW Interview: Doris Bumpus of LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL at 42nd Street Moon Portrays the Iconic Billie Holiday in Song and Struggle

The musical play is available for streaming through Sunday, May 30th

BWW Interview: Doris Bumpus of LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL at 42nd Street Moon Portrays the Iconic Billie Holiday in Song and Struggle
Actor/Singer/Producer Doris Bumpus
(photo courtesy of 42nd Street Moon)

The latest offering in 42nd Street Moon's 2021 Moonbeams series is a new virtual production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill starring Doris Bumpus as the legendary Billie Holiday. Written by Lanie Robertson and directed by Brandon Jackson with musical direction by Marcus McCauley, the play is both a celebration of Holiday as an iconic musical artist and an exploration of her experience as a Black woman in America. Ultimately, it is a testament to the power of the human spirit to persevere in spite of incredible adversity. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is available to stream through May 30, 2021. For further information and to purchase tickets, visit 42ndstmoon.org/moonbeams.

I caught up with Ms. Bumpus earlier this week in Miami, where she was celebrating her 28th wedding anniversary. The Michigan native grew up singing in church, taking on her first solo at the tender age of five. The actor/singer/producer has her own production company, D'Sunflower Productions, and also has a pair of EP's on iTunes, including her most recent release, "God Bless the Child," which pays tribute to Billie Holiday. Her wide-ranging Bay Area theater credits include playing Dorothy Gale in The Wiz and Effie White in Dreamgirls, receiving a Pan Arts Award for Best Lead Actress for both. 42nd Street Moon audiences will remember her as Jewel in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. In conversation, Bumpus is easily chatty and ebullient, and her joy in being a working actor is palpable. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I believe this isn't the first time you've done Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill?

No, it isn't. We've actually had several runs. In 2019, we ran Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill with Boxcar Theatre, then in Richmond at the East Bay Center for Performing Arts, and we also did it right before the pandemic last year in March at the Empress Theatre in Vallejo. This one's different, though, because I had a different director, so he added his own vision and approach to the script. Even though I knew the dialog, it was learning a new way, new blocking, new everything, so it was still fresh to me.

Billie Holiday has been portrayed on film and onstage in award-winning performances by stars such as Diana Ross, Audra McDonald and Andra Day, and those performances are all available on video. Was that helpful to you, or are you the type of actor who prefers not to watch previous characterizations?

No, that helped. And I also traveled to Portland, Oregon where Deidrie Henry was doing it at The Armory theater. Seeing the show live let me know "OK, I could do this!" And afterwards, they had a Q&A with the audience, so I was able to ask some really detailed questions from the producer, the star and the musical director, so that also helped a lot in preparing for the show.

It's a tricky show to perform in that, yes, there's a band onstage, but no other characters per se, so it's all pretty much on you.

It is. And I depend heavily on the musical director, because a lot of the lines I'm throwing to the musical director, so there has to be a chemistry there as well.

The play has a lot of humor in it, but it also goes to some very dark places. As an actor, how you get to those places emotionally?

In an acting class that I took a while back, they said that in order to be a successful actor, number one be able to draw from your own life experiences. I've never been on drugs or anything like that, but I've had my own struggles and I draw from that. But then the other thing is to be able to "go there" and then leave; don't stay in that space. You do the scene and then you have to get out of there.

Holiday's vocal style was so unique. How did you go about finding your own interpretation of her sound?

Two things. The musical director that I originally worked with on the first run, Willis Hickerson Jr., his position, along with the director that did it with me, was there's only one Billie Holiday. She was iconic, that's her voice, and to try and mimic her you would be doing her a disservice along with yourself as an artist. You just need to focus on the story. People don't necessarily want to hear a Billie Holiday soundalike; they want to know the story.

And the musical director, I worked with him before, so he was able to do the songs [in a way] that kind of featured my voice. We did listen to the Audra McDonald soundtrack. She's an operatic singer, so I could tell some of the music, they did it specific for her, for her voice and for her style. Even though she did do some imitation of the Billie Holiday sound, they allowed her to be herself as well. And seeing Deidrie Henry in Portland, that was a conversation I had with her and her musical director. He was like "I didn't need her to mimic Billie Holiday. I need her to tell the story, and then to present her talent as a singer as well." So that's how I kind of found the balance. And you know, I do little nuances. Like Billie Holiday, she kind of drops the end of her words, she has a little twang or whatever to her voice. I do a little bit of that, but for the most part I'm mainly focused on telling her story.

What is your own favorite Billie Holiday song to perform, the one that you just love to sing the most?

Actually "God Bless the Child" is a favorite, and I really like "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," too. So it's kind of a tie between them. "God Bless the Child" allows me to really present her message, because she wrote the song for her mother, and I can identify with the wording in that song - "God bless the child who has their own." It's like yeah, you have to have your own. At the end of the day all you have really is yourself, and God blesses that child that worked for that, that looked out for themself. And then I'm able to - because my original genre I guess is gospel - I'm able to put a little bit of gospel, a little bit of jazz, a little bit of blues, all the genres that I love, into that piece of music.

And then "Moonlight" is just fun, but there's a message there, right? What is your moonlight, you know? Moonlight can be many different things; it just depends on who's singing it. And I like it because it you can sing it fast, slow, or just you know whatever.

You've been a singer since you were a child, but decided to concentrate more on acting about ten years ago. How did you go about making that transition?

Well, honestly I don't know that it's really been a transition, because it seems like the roles I've been getting include both singing and acting. But I really enjoy the acting part of it, I think, more so than singing. I know I've been blessed with that talent, but acting just brings out a whole different side of me. I get to be someone totally different, I get to channel all this other energy that I have.

You've already played a wide variety of some pretty incredible musical theater roles, including Dorothy in The Wiz, Effie White in Dreamgirls and Shug Avery in The Color Purple. What are some of your dream roles that you haven't played yet?

Well, I don't have any specific roles [in mind], but I would love to do some film work, and have specific actors that I want to work with, like Viola Davis and Meryl Streep. And I am looking at [doing a show aboout] Josephine Baker, possibly in the fall, and doing some other stories out there about iconic actors and singers that folks aren't really talking about.

Now that we're hopefully emerging from the worst days of the Covid pandemic, what are you most looking forward to doing that you haven't been able to do for the past year or so?

To perform for a live audience, and to go to the actual theater and see live performances. I've been watching a lot of the virtual ones, and that's really been great - I am so in awe with theaters that got on board with that right away - but yeah I'm really looking forward to going to the theater.

It's been an interesting journey for us theater folks. It was a hard situation for us all, but it definitely has made us think about theater differently. I'm happy that things are starting to open up, but I don't think virtual will ever go away. So that's another option now for folks that want to put out their own work, or even participate with other theaters. So yeah, this is a really good time to work.


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