NEW BERN, N.C. – Billie Holiday, known for her unique and haunting voice, seemingly lived several lifetimes in her short 44 years.

New Bern Civic Theatre’s upcoming show Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is an honest and painful reflection of the timeless vocalist’s and civil rights activist’s thrilling and troubled life.

The show takes place during a gig at a run-down Philadelphia club in 1959, a few months before Holiday’s death. She sings her best-known songs between swigging drinks as she becomes increasingly incoherent and more honest.

Director John Van Dyke warned though the show features stellar performances, it is not a happy-go-lucky concert.

“She [Holiday] doesn’t code switch,” Van Dyke said. “She talks like she’s talking to a room full of friends. I think people will leave with a whole heck of a lot of knowledge of what it was like to be black in America’s jazz age.”

Ciara DiNapoli plays Holiday. She is an experienced theatre teacher and performer and has directed numerous local productions. Quincy Jones, a jazz musician based in Greenville, plays the supporting role of Jimmy Powers and leads a small live jazz combo from his keyboard.

The show honors the musical icon as well as Black History Month. “I just love celebrating and honoring my people,” DiNapoli said. “Black people have contributed so much to our country, and I will jump at the chance to shed light on the black experience or black history.”

DiNapoli has been a fan of Holiday’s for some time, and she said the show made her dive deeper into the singer’s life and contemplate her own past.

“It’s not a normal experience for an actor because [Holiday] is not a character,” DiNapoli said. “Honestly, it involves a lot of digging into my own life…. Many tears have been shed; sad ones and happy ones.”

During her career, Holiday became immensely popular, which led to intense scrutiny by the law. “Billie Holiday really was one of the first to stand up and shout about the Civil Rights Movement,” Van Dyke adds. “She was told to stop singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ but she kept singing, and she had a lot of legal issues because of that.”

DiNapoli said this show is an “almost personal account” of what show business was like for black performers. “There are many ‘popular’ stories about black history and the black influence on this nation,” she said. “Stories that have been softened so that the general public can digest them better. This is not one of them. This is raw and real.”

Van Dyke said directing the show is the culmination of a love affair with Holiday’s music that started when he encountered one of her records when he was just 15 years old. “I was fascinated by her throughout my life. I’ve done a lot of theater. … I always come back to the standards and jazz music because I like the freedom in it. I learned that from her. I fell in love with her…. The love I’ve had for her has just grown.” 

NBCT thanks Baxter’s 1892 and The Law Offices of Oliver and Cheek for their co-sponsorship of the production. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by Lanie Robertson runs Feb. 17, 18, 19, 24 and 25. The show is rated R due to adult language and content. Tickets are available online or through the box office at 414 Pollock StreetTuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (252-634-9057).