Bonita & Billie Holiday

★★★
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Bonita & Billie Holiday
Published 11 Aug 2016

Renowned performer Bonita Brisker’s restaging of Billie Holiday’s 1948 comeback concert at Carnegie Hall serves as both corrective and commemoration. In a 70-minute gig that involves lush, syrupy performances of iconic songs 'All of Me', 'Don’t Explain' and others, Brisker regularly pauses to castigate the USA’s monstrous lynchings during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"Being coloured can cost you your life," Brisker voices in plain, direct tone. Holiday’s own traumatic upbringing and shocking treatment by the US government are fed into wider narratives about race in the US, confronting in particular the oppression of both black women and talented black performers in a lethally white industry.

A large screen occasionally flicks into life to display archival photographs of the lynchings, as Brisker contrasts the brutality of the images with the beauty of her vocals. It’s a purposely upsetting and combative collision of contemporary success set against one of the most repulsive racial atrocities in the West. Every so often, Brisker stops to swear at the FBI agents in the back row, a reference to her continued surveillance after she was released from prison.

Despite this necessary platform, Brisker’s performance is shaky, and moments of audience interaction come across as clumsy and awkward. The numbers fail to build momentum, and although white expectations of what a Billie Holiday gig should be like serve to reinforce the very conditions Brisker is commenting on, the show is never quite feels close enough to the Carnegie Hall concert it tries to recreate.