With more than 15 years of experience as a singer and performer, including a one-woman show called “A Raisin in the Oatmeal” that debuted at Piccolo Spoleto this year, Nakeisha Daniel is still finding her voice.
On Aug. 17, the seasoned soprano will take on her next big role in the Footlight Player’s production of the Broadway hit, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” But first, she’s completing a Cabaret and Performance Fellowship at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, which she says is a part of an ongoing learning process.
“Every year when I get to take classes like at the O’Neill fellowship, I discover more things about my instrument.” It’s an instrument that Daniel says is shaped by the styles of her favorite performers, idealized from an early age watching classic movie musicals including “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music” and “Hello Dolly” on TCM with her mom.
“My style is a little like Julie (Andrews), a little like Audra (McDonald), with a little Barbra (Streisand) mixed in,” the Atlanta native says. “I’m a soprano, but when I really dig down deep, I have an earthier quality that comes out that even surprises me sometimes, because I know that there’s color in my voice that I haven’t discovered yet.”
In “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” Daniel will be channeling another famous chanteuse, the troubled jazz icon Billie Holiday. Written by Lanie Robertson, the play originally premiered off Broadway in 1986 and was made famous by Audra McDonald in her 2014 Broadway turn as the doomed singer.
The show is set in a club in 1959, mere months before Holiday’s tragic death at the age of 44, the result of years of drug addiction and alcoholism. Including performances of some of Holiday’s most famous numbers, like “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Strange Fruit,” the show is framed by bits of monologue that shed light on Holiday’s life, her troubled relationships and the racism she faced as a performer throughout her career.
It is subject matter that Daniels is familiar with as a black woman in a creative field. “I feel like these kinds of issues are something that artists have always struggled with. Finding their place in the creative spectrum, in the world, especially when it comes to self-medication,” she says. In Daniel’s case, finding her place was often challenging because of the assumptions casting directors and agents would make about her simply based on her looks.
“For years, I dealt with scenarios where I was pigeonholed or stereotyped or just plain overlooked because I’m an African-American woman,” she says. One persistent stereotype, Daniel notes, is the expectation that because she is a black singer, she will have a big, belting voice, even though she is by nature a petite soprano. Her career has taught her that the greatest trap for artists and performers is believing the hype and pigeonholing themselves.
“I did that for a number of years,” she says. “I tried to fit in, and it didn’t work. I had to find a way to carve out my own path in this business. It is still a journey, one that I don’t think ever ends.”
Beyond the useful knowledge her own personal and professional experiences brought her, Daniel prepared for the role by listening to recordings of Audra McDonald and Billie Holiday. One of the interesting things she learned in the process is that, in part, what gives Holiday her distinctive phrasing is a lateral lisp that the singer had her whole life. “Once I placed that lisp in, it triggered her voice in me and that was the key, technically, that I was missing,” she says.
What touches Daniel most about Holiday’s story? The simplicity of the things she actually wanted from life. “At the heart of her, she was just a woman who wanted a family, children, a stable home life, someone who loved her for her. And she never really got it, which is heartbreaking.”
Audiences can see Daniel sing Holiday’s swan song in this intimate, Tony Award-winning show Aug. 17 through Sept. 2 at Footlight Theatre.