Friday, November 20, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Strange Fruit" (on Joey Arias' Billie Holiday Centennial Concert)

strange fruit
by Douglas Messerli

Joey Arias Billie Holiday Centennial Concert / Los Angeles, Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theate
at Disney Hall  / the performance I saw was on November 19, 2015 

After the lavish Basil Twist-influenced extravaganza, Arias with a Twist, which I saw at Redcat in 2009, almost seven years ago to the very day (see My Year 2010), I was delighted to be able to catch a performance of the famous drag artist “channeling”--as many critics have described it--the great jazz singer Billie Holiday.

      I never saw Billie Holiday perform, but listening to her songs on recordings I find Arias’ musical interpretations a bit spooky in their faithfulness. But then, as admirers of the black singer have long observed, Holiday herself appeared often as an artist who channeled other singing legends in her work; even in Arias’ renditions one can hear moments of the raw energy of Bessie Smith, the sexual shadings of Eartha Kit, the scat jubilations of Ella Fitzgerald, and even, upon rare occasion, the carefully enunciated announcements of spiritual joy that reminds one of Ethel Waters. 
     That all of these sounds come out of the mouth of a 66 year-old gay man dressed in a slinky dark purple gown who’s pinned a large camellia to his hairdo is truly “incredible”—made credible perhaps by the fact that before our very eyes Arias constantly slips in and out of his persona, allowing us to magically watch him, moment to moment, drape himself in the character and voice of Holiday, while enjoying and even teasing us about our wonderment for his transformations. Unlike so many “drag queens” who spend their time attempting to “imitate” their beloved goddesses, Arias enjoys teasing, challenging, and even slightly mocking his heroine, while still lovingly representing her art.

      We can never be sure that in his constant intake of wine throughout his performance, it is Arias who needs the alcoholic uplift or the subject he is portraying; are his high soprano rifts a kind of mockery of the original or a true representation of Holiday’s girlish high spirits; are the performer’s several descents into pure gibberish a product of the alcohol or a tribute to Holiday’s own inexpressible comments of suffering and hurt. Certainly, we perceive in a work such as “Strange Fruit” that the guttural explosions of words such as “blood,” “crop,” and “flesh” emanate from deep horror and pain. “You’ve Changed” is filled with barks of sorrow and disappointment.

      Do Arias’ obviously bawdy plays to his large gay audiences leave his “character” momentarily in frieze, or might Holiday herself have gone there to entertain true admirers such as Frank O’Hara. But that is just where Arias is so gifted: in his ability to remain Joey Arias while simultaneously convincingly belting out Holiday favorites such as “God Bless the Child,” “Easy Living,” “All of Me,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” and, in encore, the amazing “Violets for Your Fur,” all so wonderfully accompanied by the quintet of Matt Ray (on piano), David Pitch (acoustic bass), Robert Perkins (on drums), Maiani da Silva (violin), and Isaiah Gage (cello). 
      Only a consummate performer like Arias can get away with performing someone who is so beloved and reverently treated by performers like Audra McDonald, who in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, credibly recreated the last days of the jazz singer. While McDonald, a great singer in her own right, totally immerses herself in the icon, we readily forgive Arias’ audacious transgressions because—while nonetheless convincing us of his musical and theatrical convictions in performing Holiday—he doesn’t let us lose sight for a moment of the wonderment of his gay-male transfiguration. McDonald’s performance is simply another kind of realism, while Arias’ is what theater is truly about. Oscar Wilde would surely have applauded Arias’ as wildly as did the audience at Redcat on opening night. For Arias shows us a reality that isn’t for a moment entirely believable, but takes us closer to the truth for all that.

Los Angeles, November 20, 2015