Educating Communities for Parenting was proud to partner with Norristown Educational Theater (N.E.T.) once again to present a showing of Eleanora Fagan: The Birth of Billie Holiday to the students of People for People Charter School. On February 25th, the 7th and 8th grade classes of the school learned of the life of Eleanora Fagan before she became the legendary singer “Billie Holiday”. Through a first person account in the voice and style of Billie Holiday, played by actress Monique Mosee, the story details the singer’s humble beginnings from her troubled adolescence singing in nightclubs to becoming a breakout star with musical partners like Lester Young and Benny Goodman. Last year, the performance was greatly received by participants at the drug and alcohol recovery sites we service and we were happy to be able to present this show to a new audience.
In addition to learning about Holiday’s influence on music and black history, what the students seemed to enjoy most was the music. Many students could be seen snapping their fingers and tapping their feet while Mosee, backed by Barry Sames on piano, serenaded the audience with tunes like “Would’ja for a Big Red Apple” , “The Man I Love”, and the somber “Strange Fruit”, the latter ending the performance. Left to contemplate the brutal scars that lynchings of that era left on Black History, after the applause settled, one young man commented how the song made him feel:
“It made me feel scared because if I was on the street and saw my father or someone that I knew up there, it made me feel like I don’t want to be on the Earth because of what was going on.”
In a generation in which music is so accessible and students can be often seen listening to their Ipods or having the latest hit song as their ringtone, the students seemed to really be affected by the meaning of such an honest song and not just its melody.
Afterward, artistic director of N.E.T. and creator of the play, Dr. Gene Frank led a Q&A session in which the students asked a number of questions about the artists’ backgrounds, their musical interests and future performances that would be brought to People for People including Just A Peanut, the story of Mammie Johnson, the first female pitcher to play in the Negro Baseball Leagues.
People for People is one of the few schools in the Philadelphia school district to place a heavy emphasis on musical education through its “Tune Up Philly” program which focuses on orchestral education. Students can often be seen heading to the after-school program with trumpets, flutes and other instruments in tow which explains their heavy interest in the music of Eleanora Fagan. Dr. Frank shared how his theater work is heavily influenced by Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and his own background as a trumpet player. Barry discussed his experiences with jazz, latin jazz and classical music and his travels in jazz clubs in Philly and New York City and provided the students with the wise advice:
“You can’t just study it, you have to live it.”
A credit to Barry’s talent, Dr. Frank revealed that there is no sheet music in Eleanora Fagan and that much of the music is improvised.
ECP is happy to bring these types of performances to our students as a compliment to the education we provide. We thank Norristown Educational Theater and our partners at People for People Charter School including the teachers and especially the students for taking part in this enlightening and enriching opportunity. A special thanks to Reverend Dr. Herbert H. Lusk II and Reverend Sydney Flores for their continued support of the partnership between ECP and People for People.
For more information on Norristown Educational Theater please visit http://www.norristowneducationaltheatre.org/.