The Birth: ‘Scent of Magnolia’, a Tribute to Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, stage plays, scripts, monologues, jazz singer, segregration  It all started when a jazz singer/actress asked me to write a one-woman show for her; portraying the life and music of Billie Holiday. At the time she had a three piece band and they played small jazz clubs in Chicago. She had just finished acting in a showcase that I had produced (Women Outside the Walls) and was on her way back to the windy city. 

I laughed.  Why would she want a middle-aged, white Irish woman to write a play for her showcase of an iconic African-American woman? She replied, “you got inside the heads of the women in this play you wrote. You’ve never been in prison or been married to a convict. But you were able to make us feel empathy for these forgotten wives and families.”

 I said I’d think about it and started researching Billie Holiday’s life. Sure, I’d seen “Lady Sings the Blues” but felt certain that there was more to the story than a song-bird who OD’d on hard drugs. I discovered  the story of a fearless woman who rose above poverty, rape, bigotry, prostitution and imprisonment to become one of the most memorable and celebrated artists of the twentieth century. 

The resulting one-woman show was not only Billie’s story, but the nation’s story. In her own words, she talks about her struggle to succeed in spite of Billie Holiday, jazz, stage play, one act play,the segregation of that time and the difficulties she experienced singing with the great bands, most of which were white men. Without pity for herself, she talks about the daily slings and arrows which are a part of bigotry.  She took complete responsibility for her life, her choices, and her actions.  Her triumph was her music and her songs that will live on forever.  The script does not dwell on the sensationalism of her addiction to alcohol and drugs but chooses, rather, to celebrate the whole woman. 

You might wonder about the title. After all Billie was known for her white gardenias.  I chose Scent of Magnolia from the lyrics of Strange Fruit. 
‘Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh…..’

Original music  by  composer/song writer: Gary Swindell  PRESS play

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