‘BLUE, Miss Billie’ opens Sept. 3
— Sometimes, when I cover a community event or a community leader, I have a clear idea in my head of what the story will turn out be. You would think I would have learned better by now…
What does it take to be a strong voice for your generation? What are the qualifications for that? I spend a lot of time surrounded by creative people — talented, smart, outside-the-box thinking people, and I write about them often. On rare occasion, however, I meet someone who is so much more than that and who has a voice that speaks through the art in a way that has the power to challenge perceptions and demand that we question…everything.
When I sat down to talk with John Dayo-Aliya about “BLUE, Miss Billie,” the play he wrote and directed for his theatre company, Ma’Sue Productions, my plan was to write about the play and the company. I will write about those things, but just doing that would be forfeiting the opportunity to shine a light on someone who truly is a capital “V” Voice for his generation.
I met John at Angel Falls Coffee in Highland Square. When I got there, he was already there, having secured a spot in the quiet conversation area in the back of the place. John is a big man, linebacker big, but when he spoke, his voice was gentle and his smile was genuine. Having known him beforehand, I was looking forward to our talk.
In order to understand who someone is, it is important to know where they came from, so we started by talking about his childhood in Akron. He has two sisters, Bruhnell Burton and India Burton. Their mother was very young and when they were born and was not capable of making responsible choices as a parent. When he was 3, his aunt took him in, while India and Bruhnell went to live with their grandmother.
“My aunt had worked her way to middle class, and I was raised relatively materially privileged. I had my own bedroom and my own possessions, things my sisters didn’t have.”
When John was 8, his grandmother had a stroke and his sisters went back to live with their mother. John, however, remained with his aunt.
“I loved both of my sisters very much. I was exposed to books and music and culture, which I shared with my sister, India. I’ve always been very close with India. She inspires me. She’s my peer, my mentor, and my best friend.”
Meet Billie Holiday
At 14 years old, John had a life-changing experience. One day his teacher brought a panel of disabled people into the classroom. He’d had a lot of preconceived notions about what disabled people were capable of and what he could learn from them. One of guests, a blind woman with cerebral palsy, stood up and began to scat Ella Fitzgerald’s “How High the Moon.” She had his attention. Next she sang Billie Holliday’s “Lover Man Where Can You Be.”
John was visibly moved, emotionally transformed back to the moment he was describing. “I couldn’t believe how much beauty was inside her. She changed my life that day.”
Many things changed that day. He experienced the birth of his love of jazz and desire to create it. He also gained awareness of his own ability to make assumptions about people without first trying to get to know them.
John left school that day and went straight to the Maple Valley Public Library and checked out “The Ultimate Billie Holiday.” When he got home he played it. And he hated it. “The lady at school’s voice was so melodious and Billie’s was so weird. I didn’t get her because I didn’t know how to listen to her yet.”
John kept trying to “get” Billie’s music. When he finally connected to her music, the moment was powerful. “I heard ‘Good Morning Heartache’ and I could see her in her kitchen. The picture was clear in my mind. It was visceral. I had never connected to music that way. I ran right out to Radio Shack and bought myself a $70 keyboard and started writing songs. I felt I had something to say. People kept calling my songs poems and so I started reading them (aloud).”
Eventually a teacher heard John’s poems and connected him with Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University, where he was able to write and perform his own songs, his poems. Those first experiences sharing his own work onstage ignited a desire to continue.
After high school, John attended University of Akron, majoring in Classical Voice. During his time at Akron, John discovered his passion for theatre. Up to that point he had only been exposed to musical theatre, and “straight, dramatic” theatre was something new, the something he felt he was meant to do. He embarked on a theatre major, but the path was not smooth.
“I loved so many things about my experience at Akron and I learned a lot there, but I did struggle to find relevance in the program as an African-American man. I wanted to do work that was relevant to my world view, and I often felt marginalized.”
After a year at Akron, John auditioned and was accepted to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. He moved to New York but soon discovered how difficult it was to afford to live and study there and he came home to Akron to save money.
The following spring, John enrolled at Kent State with a major in Pan-African Studies. His time at Kent was pivotal. “I met all these beautiful, talented black people who loved and embraced being black and I was exposed to lots of African American literature.”
After graduation, John returned to Akron and began to work with his sister, India, who had formed a theatre company in Akron and named it after their beloved grandmother. Ma’Sue Productions was formed as an African-American theatre company, one that would tell stories relevant to the black experience, stories that would not marginalize African Americans, but would rather be theatre for the black community, by the black community. Ma’Sue aimed to tell stories about the rich culture, heritage, and diversity of the black community that had, up to that point, been absent from his own theatre experience.
At this point in our discussion, Caorl Eutsey, the actor who portrays Billie Holiday in “BLUE, Miss Billie,” entered the coffee shop. John explained to me that after returning to Akron in 2012, he saw Caorl in a show and knew he would write a play about Billie, and he knew he would write the part of Billie for Caorl. “I saw in her a strength and a vulnerability at the same time, like Billie’s. That juxtaposition is what makes them both brilliant, compelling, difficult women.”
Caorl was drawn to the project immediately, but pinning John down to bring the play to the stage was not easy. “I feel like I have been on the heels of John’s pants forever to get him to do ‘BLUE, Miss Billie.’ When I researched Billie Holiday, I discovered that she and I have a lot in common. Billie loved through conflict, as did my mother. I recognized my mother in Billie and in many ways I understood my mother for the first time. I found a new love for my her.”
Fast-forward to 2015, and finally John and Caorl were both at a place that was right to bring “BLUE, Miss Billie” to life. As rehearsals began, Caorl became nervous about the role. “I was scared. I didn’t think could do it. John gave me confidence and pushed me to another level. I began to realize that Billie didn’t sing those records; she lived them. Music became a tool for her to express and survive her pain, and I connected to that.”
Before we wrapped up our interview, I asked John to sum up what the “Blue, Miss Billie” experience has meant to him. “Billie Holiday is my muse and is a muse for so many of us. She helps us to understand the value of choice and leaves the legacy of using the best of herself in her art. Black lives are too often left out of the genius of American life and art. Billie is our genius, our Beethoven. She is an archetype of black genius.”
As we parted on the sidewalk, I couldn’t help thinking that I had just spent time with another such archetype.
“BLUE, Miss Billie” opens Thursday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m., and the show runs Sept. 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m., Sunday Sept. 6 (2 p.m. matinee) and Saturday Sept. 12., at 220 S. Balch St., in Akron.
The cast of Blue, Miss Billie:
Tyson Sebree: Fred Worthy
Caorl Eutsey: Billie Holiday
Eula Bill: Louis Mckay
Benjamin Isaiah Black: Henry “T-Boone” Jenkins
Claudia Simms: Lorus
Keana Seals- Reefer: Mae/Maybelle
Nicole Romo: Donna Worthy/Mildred Harpo
Shalanda Lee: Ursula
Mark Seven: John Ives
To learn more about Blue, Miss Billie, go to https://www.facebook.com/pages/BLUE-Miss-BIllie/1664366977175963?sk=timeline.