From Villain to ‘Lady Day’: A Conversation with Angela Robinson

After eight seasons as the devious Veronica Harrington in Tyler Perry’s “The Haves and Have Nots,” Angela Robinson returns to the theater in one of her most challenging and rewarding roles.

The acclaimed actor and singer portrays Billie Holiday in the North Carolina Theatre’s production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Performances will run Nov. 5–14 at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh.

Set in a small bar in Philadelphia in 1959, “Lady Day” recounts Holiday’s life through the songs that made her famous. More than a dozen moving musical numbers are interlaced with personal stories, to recount a riveting portrait of the lady and her music.

We spoke with Robinson recently about the role, her first performance with N.C. Theatre.

Angela Robinson portrays Billie Holiday in the North Carolina Theatre’s production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”

What are your thoughts on being back on stage? When’s the last time you performed in front of a live audience?

In a show, in a theater? It’s been 10 years. 

Launching back into it with this show is very much a ‘what-was-I-thinking’ moment, but it’s also a very ‘God’ moment, because that’s just something He would do. 

The last show that I did was the most challenging thing I’d ever done, which was to play the witch in “Into the Woods.” And then coming back to the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. So it’s just how He works. My wonderful director (Jarvis Antonio Green) said to me yesterday, that when I finish this process, there will be nothing that I can’t do.

The small cast is a bit different from working on “The Haves” as well. 

Yeah, it’s just me. …But there’s also a wonderful pianist who’s playing the role of Jimmy. His name is Nygel Robinson, and he’s quite amazing — young, beautiful, talented — and of course, the band. So while it is just me, I think that you will feel that it is a stage full of people, because these stories are so full.

What has been most challenging about the role?

The most challenging thing is just to be sure that we honor this beautiful lady by telling her story as truthfully as possible — by committing as fully as we can to the music, to the text, to her story, and just not skipping any beats. And that is challenging, but extremely rewarding.

I always love talking to people who are portraying real-life characters. How have you balanced inspiration and imitation?

When you get into imitations, it’s so easy to lose the truth. You really have to go with what the lyrics are saying, what you think she was feeling in those moments, but also not lose her wonderful signature phrasing. 

Who really could do a solid imitation of such a great song stylist? So we’re not going there. But we definitely want you to know that you’re in that time period, and that we’re trying to capture some of her stylized tones.

Tell me about the music. Some of her songs are tough to sing.

Definitely “Strange Fruit” is draining. It’s not necessarily a hard song to sing, but it’s a hard song to internalize the reality of that. …I’m a musical theater belter, so one of the challenges has been to be sure that I pull it back and think more about Billie instead of what I would do.

This piece is a play; it’s not a musical. It’s a play with music. And so, I think once we get past the fact that it’s not musical theater, then you don’t come expecting big musical numbers. You come expecting to see an artistic piece about a very complicated and complex woman. 

What do you hope audiences come away with, from the play?  

What I hope to do is to tell the story in such a truthful way that I honor her, and that audiences walk away, feeling the pain that she went through, but also feeling how much she left us.

Life isn’t based on your perfection. Sometimes your brokenness is the thing that you’re going to leave behind, the thing that people will be inspired by most. So, (we shouldn’t) run from our broken pieces, because we’re still talking about hers. And somehow, her broken pieces have stuck with us, through her music, through her life, through her ability to push through, and even in her brokenness still stand up for what was right.

Tickets for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” are on sale now at


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