If Audra McDonald wins a Tony Award for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” she’ll have a very special person to thank during her acceptance speech: Dr. Maya Angelou.
As McDonald explained to audiences at the Circle in the Square Theatre during Wednesday’s matinee curtain call, Angelou -- the acclaimed author, poet, singer and civil rights activist -- was instrumental in shaping McDonald’s performance as legendary singer Billie Holiday.
“Last September, I started really really trying to figure out who this woman was -- this Billie Holliday,” McDonald said, stopping her standing ovation and returning the audience to their seats. “So I called a friend of mine who was in touch with a woman who knew Billie Holiday and spent time with her in her last days -- the last sort of six months of her life. And that person was Dr. Maya Angelou.”
McDonald received raves for her portrayal of Holiday in “Lady Day,” earning her eighth nomination for what could be a record sixth Tony Award. Winning the best lead actress in a play honor this year will have McDonald making history as the first-ever performer with awards in all female acting categories.
“The very first person to give me insight into who Billie Holiday was, was Maya Angelou,” McDonald said. “And my favorite story that Dr. Maya Angelou has told was that she was doing a concert in L.A. and discovered that Billie Holiday was in the audience one night. And so she said to the audience, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Billie Holiday is here.’ So I feel like today, I need to say to all of you, ‘Maya Angelou is with us, and she’s watching over us.’”
Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. on Wednesday. She was 86.