Alexis J. Rogers | Performer of the week interview
Stepping into the persona of a legendary celebrity is hard enough for an actor, but add in the unique vocals of Billie Holiday and it becomes an even bigger challenge. Alexis J. Rogers gives a stunning performance as the jazz songstress in Porchlight Music Theatre’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, beautifully recreating Holiday’s gritty vocals and exposing the emotional vulnerability of the singer in the months before her death. Born and raised on the South Side, Rogers began performing during her high school years at Kenwood Academy, where she appeared as Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance. For undergrad, she set her mind on Howard University in Washington, D.C., and it was the only school she applied to. She was accepted and received a musical theater B.F.A., working on the East Coast for a bit before heading back to Chicago, where she’s become a standout performer in both traditional plays and musical theater. Rogers speaks to us about how she got into Holiday’s character, Holiday’s connection to present-day celebrities, and the advantages of being a diverse performer.
Did you listen to Billie Holiday growing up?
I heard her music probably when I was in high school. But it was the commercial stuff, like “God Bless the Child” and I may have heard “Strange Fruit.” I was not very familiar with her at all, so when I got cast to do Lady Day it meant me closing myself in with her for about a month, listening to her, singing her, talking her, laughing her, everything, interviews, whatever I could get my hands on.
What has this experience revealed about Billie Holiday to you?
There was so much that went on in her life that we would look at as very jarring. Something that could just take you out of here, something that can make you go crazy, but Billie Holiday lived life to the fullest. She didn’t live her life as if it was tragic. So many things had happened to her, and I guess her coping mechanism was to laugh it off. She laughed her life, she sang it in her music, she put it in a song, so she was able to cope and deal with those things. Yeah, she was a druggie, but nevertheless, she made a choice. People are like, “Aw man, that was so sad,” but for Billie, she was like, “Hey, I’m living. I’m singing, I’m living.”
How did you work with director Rob Lindley and music director Jaret Landon to create Billie Holiday in your voice and body?
She was 44 when she died, so for me, not being quite 44, I had to be conscious of useful positioning and posturing, and so Rob was very much a stickler for that on me. As far as creating her sound, Jaret was able to just—he played just like the bands of old, so it became very easy to get into the music, get into the laid-back sensation that she had because there was nobody else to do what Billie Holiday was doing. People were like, “Oh, she’s singing behind the beat.” Well, that’s her style, and that’s why there has never been anyone like her since.
Was there any big challenge getting her voice down?
I will say, yeah. My singing voice doesn’t sound like Billie’s, so there’s a certain place in my voice that I have to put her, and I have to be very careful that I don’t lose certain parts of my register because I have to sing a certain space to be able to get her voice down pat. I’m constantly vocally stretching so that I can keep my upper register.
With a one-woman biographical show, how do you keep the energy moving forward at all times?
It just so happened that this particular piece—as much as you invest yourself, that’s as much as the audience is going to be invested with you. So there are moments where there’s absolutely no sound, no movement, but at the same token, because I’ve decided to take this journey and go as far as I can go with this character, my audience always seems to be able to go with me. They never seem to feel like they’ve been in there for 90 minutes, and I’m very grateful for that [laughs].
How do you feel Billie Holiday’s story connects to modern-day celebrity?
I don’t think it’s much different. We hear about old stars that are strung out on this and they’re strung out on that, but you always want to hear about them. ...But they just want to do their art. And I think it was the same way with her: She just wanted to sing. She just wanted to do what she did. They’re going to talk anyway, I’m going to be in the tabloids anyway, so I’m going to live my life, but as long as I get to do what I want to do then so be it.
You’re a very versatile performer. I’ve seen you in straight-up drama, I’ve seen you do musicals that are operatic and some that have more traditional showtunes, and now you’re doing something really jazzy. Do you prefer any one over the other? And do you think it’s important to be diverse in your skill set?
Oh you have to be. You have to be extremely diverse because you gotta stay competitive. You gotta stay with the edge. There are so many talented, brilliant people out here doing the same thing that you’re doing, so you’ve got to be able to stay competitive. I don’t have a favorite genre of singing. I don’t have any of that. I kind of love it all. I love that I get to do such a wide variety of things. Whatever I get to do, I’m happy about it.