Billie's Blues, Tonite at Mama's Jam written by playwright Hershell Norwood, tells the story of the legendary artist's interpersonal struggles. It attempts to show us a place filled with frustration and fear, mixed with musical elements that foster possibilities and joy. However, unlike other theatre productions on Billie, this play presents a more youthful side of the jazz icon. Demonstrating her retaliation against authority and her overall naivete. Her infamous addictions in this play serve as a mirror reflecting her innocence. The director attempts to echo the spirit of the older, urban life of the musician while speaking to a new generation; those whose lives defy categorization. "Billie's Blues, Tonite at Mama's Jam" depicts the real-life struggles of Billie Holiday. Her art became her life, and this play will give the audience a sense of her experience.
Billie Holiday is in her mid to late 20s. She’s an African American female who was raised in the poor black ghettos of Baltimore and Harlem. Billie's mother Sadie Harris was 17 when Billie was born. Her father Clarence Holiday was a traveling musician and her parents never lived together nor did they ever marry. Because of this and being Catholic by birth, Sadie traveled to another state to have the baby. Elanora Fagan, later to be known as Billie Holiday, was born April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia.
When Billie was a young child she and Sadie returned to the Fells Point area of Baltimore where she was left with different friends and relatives while Sadie looked for work in Harlem. Billie was a street kid, unruly, and often played hooky from school. Consequently, she completed only a fifth grade education. At the age of about twelve, she had been staying in the care of a madam in a whorehouse. She was raped and sentenced to a Catholic detention home for a year. When she was released she took a train to New York City to live with her mother in Harlem. The two females being so young became tremendously dependent on each other. They devised different means of making a living, including prostitution. But it was in Harlem that Billie Holiday started singing for tips in different clubs. It was also there that she began developing her craft as a professional jazz singer.
Billie was always a physically beautiful woman. Her features were a blend of African American and Irish Catholic ancestry. As a woman, she could be both delicate and brutal. She could dress in pearls and furs then turn to have a fistfight with two sailors and win. She was a troubled artist who struggled with drug addiction and often with a severe lack of self-confidence.
Mama Sadie is in her late 30s to early 40's. She is an African American female and Billie Holiday’s mother. Like her daughter, Sadie was also an illegitimate child having been born out of wedlock. She was poor and lived in the “rough” Fells Point section of Baltimore. Her father was named Charles Fagan, a mulatto man whose mother was black and father Irish Catholic. Unfortunately, Sadie was rejected and never acknowledged by the Fagan family. As a result, she developed troubling insecurities about herself. She was short, fat, and rather homely. On top of this, she had never attained much formal education. She could only therefore qualify for menial type jobs, maids and domestic services. Sadie depended heavily on Billie for emotional and financial support. Even when Billie became a big success, Sadie almost always shared a place to live with her.
Katie Rose is in her early 20s. She is a Caucasian female who was born into a middle-class family and lived in southern Connecticut. Katie has an older brother who became an engineer, married, and moved to Phoenix. Her father passed away about the time she was to enter college. As a result, the insurance money gave Katie and her mother additional income to live on. It also provided Katie an easier means to attend college. Katie is a bright young woman, intelligent, but also is a bit of an independent spirit. She can be naïve and idealistic, especially when it comes to understanding race and interracial relationships in the 1930s. Katie began college at a place just north of New York City. But once she was introduced to jazz music of Harlem, she dropped school and headed for Manhattan to start a career as a singer. Secretly however, she was really searching the clubs to find Billie Holiday. Eventually, she found Billie and became her life-long companion and family friend. In time, she also fell in love with Bobbie, Billie’s piano player. Eventually, they get an apartment together.
Bobbie Tuckerman is in his early 30s. He is an African American male. He is also Billie’s piano accomplice and close friend. He has known Billie since she was 16 when she first started singing for tips in the clubs. Bobbie is not from Harlem. He was born in the “deep” south and received his formal music training from his mother who gave piano lessons to local school kids. However, it was in the juke joints on Friday and Saturday nights where he developed his blues and jazz techniques. Bobbie, like Billie, migrated to Harlem in the early 1930s looking for better jobs and a better life. He knew that Harlem was where he would find the best jazz music in the country. Once there he and Billie became instant companions. They were like brother and sister who looked out for each other. Many nights Bobbie would sleep at “Mama’s Jam” so that he and Billie could continue to play music together. Having been born in the south Bobbie was very skeptical of interracial relations. He eventually falls for Katie but it takes him a long time to get together with her.
Jack Herald is in his late 20's to early 30s. He is a Caucasian male from a wealthy New Your family. Jack took piano lessons as a child but quickly lost interest, although he particularly loved jazz. As he grew into a young man his parents sent him to an Ivy League college to study law. Unfortunately, Jack had absolutely no interest in going to law school. Half way through college, he dropped out and got his own place in New York City. Because of the vast network of important people he knew, Jack was able to get a job as a feature writer for a successful jazz magazine. As his experience grew, he became keenly interested in promoting black jazz in Harlem. He met Billie Holiday and started promoting her career. They developed a loving but highly disagreeable relationship. They argued often and would not speak to each other for long periods. Jack was also a big supporter of the NAACP. Unfortunately, he did this in a somewhat patronizing sort of way. Jack always felt that he knew what was best for the fate of black jazz music and for Billie Holiday’s career.
Lucius McKann is in his mid to late 30s. He is an African American male who becomes Billie’s husband. Lucius thinks of himself as a talent agent for jazz musicians. Specifically, he wants to take over and control Billie Holiday’s career. This is interesting however because until he first met Billie Holiday, he neither had the experience nor the interest. The thought came to him while talking to her. In essence, Lucius McKan was more of a glorified pimp. In street lingo, whatever “hustle” he needed to enact in order to make big money, he could master the role and literally just by thinking it. He was born in Detroit. He was naturally intelligent but dropped out of high school to start his own business, a BBQ rib take-out restaurant. He was successful and next opened a nightclub in the black neighborhood. This is where he came in touch with music entertainment. But because money was his main objective, he “fenced” stolen Cadillac cars and even preached as a self-ordained minister for a short while. When he met Billie, he was legally married with two sons. He immediately saw the economic potential in managing her career. Lucius introduced Billie to his wife and told her to give him a divorce. In essence, he would send them money but was going to New York to be with Billie and manage her career. In New York he was physically abusive to Billie, supplied her with heroin, and took as much of her money as he could before returning to his family.