Last night I went to see Lady Day in London’s Wyndham’s Theatre. It’s a ninety minute play about Billie Holiday, with multi award-winning Audra McDonald capturing the singer’s spirit.
Lady Day is an evening in Billie Holiday’s life. The jazz and blues singer performs while descending into drug and alcohol oblivion. It is compelling but excruciating to watch.
While Billie stumbled and slurred and sang, I wondered whether fame had fuelled her addiction, or whether fame had made any difference at all. Billie Holiday’s death is echoed in Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, and Amy Winehouse. So many other familiar names could be added to this roll-call. Does fame put you beyond the reach of everyone who cares?
Billie Holiday never lived without racism. She grew up in poverty and segregation. Despite being a respected and celebrated musician, segregation made touring difficult and demeaning. She died of heart and lung failure at forty-four. This was five years before the 1964 US Civil Rights Act abolished segregation.
Billie Holiday had so many people around her who cared. Yet these people were overshadowed by the others, the ones who indulged her demons, the ones who supplied and watched her addictions, and helped bring about her destruction.
In the same way as Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley had people around him who cared, but he also had a coterie of people around him who indulged his appetites. These dependencies and addictions were contributing factors to his death at forty-two.
Elvis in London
In my novel Elvis in London the main character Eddie is a 21st century star, adored by his fans and the media. Buoyed by his fame and ego, he is set to make a terrible decision that will destroy everything and everyone he loves.
His family see he is on a road to self-destruction. They reason with him, and show their unconditional love. They do everything they can but the decision rests with him whether he heeds their advice.
I don’t want to give any spoilers but Eddie gets lucky.
For a relatively short show, Lady Day raised an awful lot of questions in me. When it ended and I slipped out of the theatre I had no answers. Yet sometimes there are no answers to be found, and the best we can do is to question. Because to question is to notice, and to notice is to care.