Four months before legendary jazz-singer Billie Holiday died in 1959, she had been reduced to performing in a small dive in South Philadelphia called Emerson's Bar & Grill.
And even then, she was singing there illegally, having lost her license to perform in any venue that served alcohol because of prior drug convictions and imprisonment.
After her release from prison, Holiday could record her music, could sing in Carnegie Hall. But those options couldn't hold her addiction to heroine and alcohol at bay, and they eventually stole the voice she was famous for and reduced her to singing at the generosity of a friend.
That is the setting for Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill by Lanie Robertson, the nearly one-woman play which will be performed in the Balagula Theatre at Natasha's Bistro & Bar.
The play depicts Holiday reminiscing about her life, sometimes with humor, sometimes with bitterness, and peppered with cursing and racy comments.
Actor and director Sidney Shaw said he had always wanted to bring that play to Lexington, but looked for years for an actor who could deliver the essence of Holiday.
In 2009 he heard Jessie Laine Powell sing at a fund-raiser and approached her about the project.
"She said she wasn't an actor," Shaw said. "But she doesn't have a problem connecting with the audience, and she has the background, the story, and the history.
"Billie Holiday had a really hard life and was falling apart," he said. "Jessie was perfect for that. The two are really connected."
Connected, but not the same.
I first met Powell in 2001 when she was climbing out of the hole she had dug for herself that was lined with her love of music and her addiction to alcohol. In her 20s, at the urging of jazz singer Nancy Wilson's road manager, Powell headed to California where her career blossomed but her life began to crumble.
The difference between Holiday and Powell, however, is that Powell has a loving family who wouldn't give up on her and a background in the church, both of which eventually helped her to change direction.
"I survived," Powell said, adding that she hasn't had a drink in nine years. "I'm a survivor. But it wasn't easy. Some choose to survive and others don't."
By the time we meet Holiday in the play, Powell said, "she is very bitter, very direct and she curses a lot, which I had to get used to. Her only solace is in the music."
Holiday was raped at age 11 and was sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school, for the second time. The first time was because of truancy.
Holiday and her mother moved to New York in 1929 where the two of them worked as prostitutes. Holiday was 14.
But it was around that time that she began singing in clubs in New York, which soon led to her discovery and fame.
She co-wrote God Bless the Child and became famous for Strange Fruit, a song protesting the lynching of black people. Her vocal style and phrasing were unheard of at that time, making her a superstar. But drugs and alcohol, abusive relationships and prison were her undoing.
Powell agreed to perform in the play if she could get Shaw to work with her on a musical about her life, she said. She wants people to know how God has given her a new life and a renewed purpose. She is married, has a teenage daughter, and performs jazz and gospel throughout the region.
It is all about a desire to do right.
"Do you have the willpower to say no and ask for help?" she said. "Or do you stay where you are and your purpose not be fulfilled?"
Shaw and Powell have been working on Lady Day for about a year. Shaw believes the experience will give Powell a better idea of the enormous task of taking her own story to the stage.
"I thought she could get a better handle if we do the Billie Holiday story first," he said. "She has everything solid."
Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.