ETA Creative Arts Foundation

A fiction-writing teacher of mine, whenever she encountered a particularly involved explanation, would scream about distracting readers from the plot and boring them with details that they could have figured out on their own.

Thirty minutes into Strange Fruit, a new play about jazz singer Billie Holiday, I began wishing for that teacher to materialize. The playwright-director, Okoro Harold Johnson, attempts to cover all of Holiday’s 44 years in little more than two hours. Instead of dramatizing selected periods, Johnson forces his characters to constantly explain themselves, and in rather banal ways. With so little room for character development, there’s little reason to care about the story told.

Two ghosts–one of an older, the other of a younger Billie Holiday–tell their story in flashback. After Johnson establishes Holiday’s 1959 death in the first scene, the ghosts begin talking about her life. Along the way, they sing some of her famous songs and bicker about which one is responsible for Holiday’s problems with drugs, men, and money.

In addition to covering too much ground, Johnson has undertaken to tell the “untold story” of Billie Holiday. When we hear Holiday’s death announced in a radio newscast voice-over–“a blues singer who made millions in recordings but died with 70 cents in her bank account”–Holiday’s ghost marches out to demand a fair and accurate story. She derides the public’s perception of her, and even attacks the Hollywood movie of her life. This opening had some promise: to set the record straight on Holiday. I thought the play might comment on the role of the popular media–and perhaps of the white media–in shaping perceptions of a black singer in postwar America.

But the only significant insight came by way of a generous dose of Freudian theory. Johnson attributes Holiday’s myriad troubles to her father’s denial of love. When her father dies, Holiday wails, “I needed your love, needed a man’s love [to make me] a much more secure person.” He abandoned the family when Holiday was four and, though he returned to her life years later, his early departure left her reliant on surrogate fathers–manipulative men who always claimed to love her completely but cheated on her and stole her money. One lover even set Holiday up for a drug bust in the hope of lessening police pressure on himself–and still she was hard put to leave him. While this weakness, a theme that’s repeated throughout the play, does offer some insight, as the key to Holiday’s personality it rings a bit hollow: Johnson ruins the dramatic potential by having Holiday explain the anguish of being alone instead of showing its effect on her, especially in interactions with her lovers.

Like the script, the actors and musicians in Strange Fruit deliver little of their initial promise. As the older Billie Holiday, Ishma Durah sings well and strongly in the opening but whines through the rest of her songs.

She is also often overwhelmed by the accompanying jazz band, which, although it’s made up of a number of fine musicians, has no cohesion as a unit. Still, pianist Vince Willis and bass player Mendai Davis are evocative when playing alone or as a duet.

Strange Fruit claims to be about Billie Holiday and saxophone player Lester Young (played by Hank Ford), yet there’s barely enough about Young to justify even his place in the cast of characters. It’s too bad that Young figures here only as an occasional sideman to Holiday’s music and histrionics, because Ford plays a tremendous saxophone; and at least when he played the band came to life.