5 Questions with Nygel D. Robinson, who Portrays "Jimmy Powers" in NCT's Upcoming Production of "Lady Day"
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a play that celebrates the life and legacy of Billie Holiday, is set to take the stage at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theatre on November 5.
Featuring both musical numbers and intimate stories from the artist’s life, the production, directed by Jarvis Antonio Green, features Angela Robinson as the leading lady and Nygel D. Robinson as Jimmy Powers, her accompanying pianist. We had the chance to talk with Nygel and ask him five key questions about his role, why it matters, and the immense power of this show in today’s climate.
What was your experience with Billie Holiday's music before taking part in this production?
Nygel revealed that he is no stranger to the stage, to this show, or even to Green as a director. A prolific, multi-talented New York-based artist, Robinson let us know that his experience has him “coming into [the production] with a specific connection” to Billie Holiday.
However, that connection is one that he’s earned through his performance. He shares that, prior to tackling this role for the first time, he only “knew about Billie’s most famous songs.” Now, though, he knows a lot more and has a much deeper connection to the artist and her magic.
His experience is one that many viewers, especially younger ones, will be able to relate to. In fact, in many ways, that- creating familiarity with a celebrated but sometimes-overlooked artist- is what this production is all about.
What is your favorite song in the play and why?
Lady Day features 16 powerhouse songs, but Nygel knew his clear favorite, “Crazy He Calls Me.” He elegantly elaborated on its understated power, saying, “Musically, it’s the most lush and beautiful song in the play. Whenever I play those chord changes, I just smile. Lyrically, it’s very simple. I am a big fan of complexity, but sometimes all you need is a simple lyric.”
Given that one of the lines is “he moves me with a smile,” it’s easy to see that these lyrics have moved through Nygel, imparting their power, which is sure to come through in the upcoming performance.
How would you describe your character's relationship with "Billie?"
Proving he understands not just the show’s music but its very heart, Nygel tells us that, in his view, “Jimmy is there to anchor Billie. He keeps her grounded. He keeps her in check. She’s liable to go off the rails, but Jimmy can start to play an intro to a song and bring her back to reality.”
He continues his exploration with a nod to the script’s deeper nuances: “Jimmy has a deep love for Billie and is saddened by her current state . . . he does all he can to help her remain ‘Lady Day’ and not drift off into the deeply sad woman she is underneath it all.”
What do you think is the most powerful and/or important aspect of this production?
In a time when there’s a (much-needed) push to share African-American experiences, Nygel understands that “the most important aspect of this production” is the “telling [of a] beautiful Black woman’s story.” He also notes that the story doesn’t just pedantically focus on her “hardship and plight,” as so many stories about Black Americans do, but that it’s “also a story of joy, laughter, and reminiscence.” He shares that, “She was a complicated and amazing human being. We get to invite her spirit into the space every night and present her to an audience that may or may not know a lot about who she really was.”
His answer, combined with the fact that Nygel himself has gone through the transformative experience of getting to know Billie, sent chills up our spine. With a cast so in tune with the power of music, the power of people, and the necessity of sharing minority experiences, there’s no doubt that this production will be pure magic.
In your opinion, why is this play an important one to do NOW?
Need more proof of this production’s vitality? Nygel tells us that this play matters because “WE NEED TO HONOR OUR BLACK WOMAN.” He put it in caps, and we did too because it’s true.
Nygel goes on to say that as he “says this to other people,” he also says it to himself. “This particular woman of color has endured racism, sexism, objectification,” and so much more. He shares that he hopes “this story sparks empathy in everyone so that we can truly appreciate the value and magnificence of the Black woman.”
We could elaborate, but we’ll just respond in the only appropriate way: “Amen!”
Do yourself a favor and celebrate Billie, Nygel, Angela, Antonio, and the evolution of theatre and (with any hope) our world by seeing this important production.
The show runs through November 14, and tickets (going fast!) are available here.
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