By Carol Vaughn —
Theatergoers have a treat in store this month, when North Street Playhouse in Onancock will offer five performances of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” by Lanie Robertson.
The play recounts events in the life of American jazz and swing singer Billie Holiday.
The stories, often humorous and sometimes salty, are told by Holiday herself, played by Aja Samone Ruffin, and are interspersed with more than a dozen musical numbers.
The setting is a seedy bar in Philadelphia in March 1959 — recreating one of Holiday’s last performances, just four months before her death at age 44.
“It’s a roller coaster of emotions,” said Ruffin about the play.
Audience members “can expect to laugh. They can expect to be in shock. They can expect to be sad — but she (Holiday) won’t be. They may even be angry with some of the things that happen, but she won’t be,” she said.
“Billie Holiday was a whole lot more than just a singer. She broke the doors on some things,” said Terry Bliss, North Street’s artistic and executive director.
Holiday toured with musicians Artie Shaw and Teddy Wilson.
“They were the first White band to have an African American singer,” Bliss said.
On the stage will be just three performers — Ruffin, pianist Evelyn Burton, and drummer Robert Buckner.
The audience will be seated cabaret-style, as they would be in the play’s nightclub setting.
The show’s running time is around an hour and a half, with no intermission.
The play premiered in 1986 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, and soon played off-Broadway. It opened on Broadway in 2014.
Ruffin, 32, is a trained musician and actor with a mesmerizing voice.
She also is a wife and a mother and works at the Accomac Social Security office.
“I think I have always sung. I can remember being my daughter’s age (8), if not younger, singing and dancing,” she said.
Born in Charlottesville and a longtime Eastern Shore resident, Ruffin’s first role in a North Street production was Mother Shaw in “Crowns” in February 2020.
She also acted and sang in “The Green Book,” produced by the Eastern Shore Historical Society, in February 2020 at the Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center.
Ruffin credits the late Judith Tracey with introducing her to the theater when she was a student at Arcadia High School, where Tracey taught.
“I met her in middle school. She realized I could sing. Then I got her in high school and she just pushed me,” Ruffin said.
Her first role was Lucy in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” followed by the role of Rizzo in “Grease,” and Velma Kelley in “Chicago.”
After graduating high school, Ruffin attended the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
At UMES, she played the role of Shug Avery in “The Color Purple.”
“I think that was probably my favorite,” she said.
Ruffin’s own musical taste runs towards the music of singers like Holiday, Nina Simone, and others of that era.
She hopes to introduce theatergoers of her generation to that music in this role.
“I feel like people my age … don’t know who Billy Holiday is. I know who she is because I love music; but I think it’s important that I’m doing it (the role) because, whether they come to see anything about Billie Holiday, they’ll come to see me — so it’s bridging the gap of the generations and the culture,” she said.
Ruffin echoed Holiday’s statement, “I want to sing. I need to sing. Singing is living to me.”
“That’s how I relate to her. I have to sing. Singing is living to me,” Ruffin said.
Holiday “was a very bold woman. She’s not shy about anything. She doesn’t regret anything — I think that’s another thing I love about her — and she has been through hell,” including rape, substance abuse, alcoholism, and multiple marriages, Ruffin said.
She listened to recorded interviews with Holiday in preparation for the role.
“She always says that you can only get to where you’re at by where you’ve been — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad, you literally wouldn’t be who or what you are now if it wasn’t for who you were then. And I appreciate and respect that,” Ruffin said.
About North Street Playhouse
North Street Playhouse was founded in 1986 around Bliss’ kitchen table.
Since then, the playhouse has provided seasons of live theater to enthusiastic audiences, as well as summer theater camps for youth, among other offerings.
All that came grinding to a halt with the pandemic.
“Like everybody else did, we closed on March 14, 2020,” Bliss said.
Since then, the playhouse’s only productions have been a virtual holiday show in 2020, organized by Mary Stiegelbauer; a staged reading of “Driving Miss Daisey” in February 2021; another virtual show in May 2021; and an outdoor production, also a staged reading, of “Stronger than Steel,” by Kellee Blake, at the Onancock gazebo in July.
Last fall, “I had a whole season planned and then, all of a sudden, the delta strain (of coronavirus) came in, so I had to cancel all of that. And then in September, I broke my leg,” Bliss said.
Since then, North Street hosted an evening of comedy with Tom Nolan and Greg Jones, joined by others.
In December, the playhouse had its first full production since the pandemic began, “The Charitable Sisterhood Christmas Spectacular.”
Bliss is in the process of planning for additional productions this spring. “I told Mary I’m going to announce a full season from here to the summer, but put ‘tentative’ next to everything, because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.
The changing public health scenario due to the pandemic “has been a burden on us, the way it has been on everybody else,” Bliss said.
Tickets are ONLY available through online reservations at www.northstreetplayhouse.org/tickets