As a long-time jazz singer, Jessie Laine Powell said she had always admired Billie Holiday, but never really understood her.
“I think Billie has an air of mystery. No one knew that much about her. I never knew why she had such a haunting sound about her voice, but now, studying her, I understand why she sang the way she sang. She had a lot of emotion in the way she sang,” Powell said.
“She hasn’t been there in years, and she’s telling her story, from her mom to her dad, things that happened in her life,” Powell said.
The timeline of the show means Holiday would die six months after the events took place, at the age of 44.
During the past seven months, Powell has realized that she has more in common with the late singer than a love for jazz music. Like Holiday, Powell has struggled with addiction in the past. Although Powell said she has been alcohol free for several years, she has an understanding of Holiday’s heroin addiction.
“Me and Billie’s stories are similar, in that I had an addiction to alcohol and she had an addiction to heroin,” Powell said.
The more she learns about Holiday, Powell said, it makes her realize how lucky she is to be sober.
“She was a superstar, but her star was starting to diminish,”¿Powell said.
That loss of starpower was largely due to Holiday’s drug use, which also led to felony convictions and the loss of her New York City Cabaret Identification Card, a permit required from Prohibition through the 1960s to sing in clubs.
“She didn’t have the support system that I had. She had a lot of deep wounds that could not be healed, initially, I don’t think. Her salvation was music, it’s what made her happy, and when they tried to take that away from her, it just drained the life out of her,” Powell said.
For Winchester residents, there are plenty of local connections. Powell grew up in Winchester and is a former worship leader at Winchester First United Methodist Church’s First Fire campus. The Balagula Theater at Natasha’s Bistro is operated by Winchester actor Ryan Case.
Although Powell has been singing professionally since she was a teenager, “Lady Day” will be her first time acting. Director Sidney Shaw had seen Powell performing at venues throughout the Lexington area and approached her about the part. Although Powell said she never considered acting, Shaw was able to convince to come on board.
“It’s really pulling me out of my comfort zone, which is good, because it’s helping me grow and develop. It’s repositioning me to do other things, like musicals. It’s let me know I can do other things. You never know what God has up His sleeve,” Powell said.
Shaw also spent a year helping Powell write her own life story.
“I am a survivor, and she (Holiday) was not a survivor. I credit that to my walk with Jesus Christ,” Powell said.
Despite their similar struggles with substance abuse, Powell said the biggest similarity between herself and Holiday is a love of performing, particularly jazz music.
“I see parallels in my life. I love to sing, I love jazz. Her passion for the music just radiates for me. I understand that. When you’re a jazz singer, that’s what you do. It’s something you’re called to do,” Powell said.
University of Kentucky professor Raleigh Dailey will accompany Powell on the piano.
Tickets are $15 and the show begins at 8 p.m.
Dinner is available and guests should be at the theater at 6:15 p.m. to place an order.
Repeat performances will be July 30 and Aug. 5-6.
“There are a lot of Billie Holliday fans. They just want to come to get to know more about her,” Powell said.
Contact Rachel Gilliam at email@example.com.