Billie Holiday was brought back to life in honor of Black History Month at Upland’s Grove Theater Feb. 15 as actress Bonita Brisker retold the life story of one of jazz’s greatest legends in her play coined, “Bonita and Billie.”
Brisker, winner of two NAACP theater awards, embodied Holiday in mind, body and spirit in her one-woman show.
Accompanied solely by her piano and keyboard ensemble, Brisker owned the stage as her uncanny performance of Holiday took the audience back in time through stories of segregation, racism and lynching.
The magic of the performance begins before the show even starts as Holiday’s body was portrayed dead lying on her casket while the audience fills the room. Holiday soon comes to life and time is turned back to the 1940’s as her sassy banter and sharp tongue warms the stage.
The show weaves back and forth with Holiday talking about the many stages of her life and then seamlessly transitions to songs.
“I enjoyed the talking about life because it moves you right into the mood of the song,” said Dale Colby, resident of La Verne.
“[Brisker] did a very good job painting pictures with words.”
Brisker landed her role of Holiday after her audition for “North on South Central,” where her research led to a new-found excitement to build her role as Holiday.
“Her life was so amazing and colorful, I wanted to highlight the positive aspects because she did so much during the time of segregation,” Brisker said.
“I wanted to talk about the good because most people only know about the bad things.”
It took Brisker almost 10 years to prepare and study for the show and role while juggling other projects. She wanted the show to be factual and authentic.
“It took a lot of years to fine tune my voice in voice classes,” Brisker said.
“She has such a special intonation, it took me a while.”
Theater manager Sherry Kinison has been commemorating Black History Month since she bought the theater nearly 23 years ago. Her father pastored a church, where she grew up with the history and fell in love with the music.
“So many people don’t know the history of these great performers,” Kinison said. “There’s a need for it and a lot of people do nothing [about it] especially in the arts.”
Though the show has garnered positive feedback from previous performances, Kinison admitted she was disappointed with the attendance.
“I’m disappointed that it’s not a full house because it’s such a beautiful show,” said Kinison.
“It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry and it’s a shame that everyone won’t get to see the show.”
Though the show comes to an end at The Grove Theater, its various performances continue to make its way throughout America as Briskers’ most gratifying work.
“When you listen to the audience thank you for the history, I walk away feeling very full and satisfied,” Brisker said.
“Everyone can relate to Billie Holiday and her story and that’s why I do it.”
Monica Dien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.