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Meet the star of Harlequin's 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill'

Alexandria J. Henderson wears a white gown and white gloves and sings in front of a microphone.
Harlequin Productions
Alexandria J. Henderson as Billie Holiday

In repertory through Nov. 27, Alexandria J. Henderson portrays Billie Holiday with style and humor.

Raised in church music, Alexandria J. Henderson has always been a singer. Getting to acting and musical theater took a little extra effort.

"What I wanted to be was Miss America," she says. "I competed for years in the Miss America organization, eventually went to Miss Washington. I got fourth runner-up, so I was not going to be Miss America that year. And I was devastated. I didn't know what I was going to do because that was my whole plan: We're going to go to state. We're going to win and then be the public speaker and the Miss America that travels the world."

After that disappointment, she heard that the DASH Center for the Performing Arts in Tacoma was putting on a community production of "Dreamgirls." Henderson auditioned and got a part. A family member then encouraged her to do general auditions for Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, and she appeared in her first professional show with them in June 2013.

"I hit the ground running and got a lot of on-the-job training, you know, as far as acting and learning different techniques," she says. "Watching tenured artists, actors who've been in the game, who went to school for acting. I could see their learning processes. I grew into this. I can't imagine myself doing anything else now. Then I joined the union in 2018, and I've been making a living from acting since — with the exception of the last year and a half, obviously."

Henderson managed to put the pandemic downtime to good use. The Atlantic Conservatory in New York was offering a virtual global conservatory, a condensed version of their acting curriculum online. To pay for the lessons, she took to Facebook and Instagram for crowdsource funding, with a concert of songs accompanied by her sister on piano.

The concert was successful and also led to a podcast. Her fans enjoyed the sisterly banter so much, she started the "Twin...ish" podcasts. The sisters are three years apart, but they look so much alike that people often think Alexandria is Whitney and vice versa. The episodes are funny and upbeat.

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" is an intense show, depicting Billie Holiday just a few months before her death at age 44. She's weary, ravaged by alcohol and drugs, and struggling to get back to what she loved best: singing for an appreciative audience.

"It is, as of today, the hardest show I've ever done," says Henderson. "Because the show is a lot about Billie Holiday telling stories. I'm really good at telling stories, and when I recount a story, I will do what she did: start here, wander a bit over here to another thought, then come back." Keeping the stories on track was a challenge.

She finds another useful connection to Billie Holiday in that they share the same dark sense of humor.

"I am honored to to even step into her shoes for 90 minutes. I find that we have a lot of similarities as far as dark humor is concerned. All the stuff that happened to her, she doesn't really let it get her down, except for a couple of moments. For the most part, she feels, 'Oh, well, that's life. And sometimes that happens, and we've got to move on.' I am just really honored that I get to play something so deep and so storied. She's an icon."

Of course, Holiday's distinctive voice is difficult to replicate. Henderson has worked hard on this, for example, learning to drop the "Southern" tone of her heritage and adopting a more "East Coast" sound. Holiday's movements and gestures that fans will recognize are well done, too.

So what's next for Henderson?

"I do have another show after this. I have a two-week break, and then I start rehearsals," she says.

"Long term? The goal is to perform until I'm dead. And if that includes Broadway, TV or film, I'm here for it. If that means I'm regional for my entire life, but I continue to work and my bills are paid, yes. I'm not the 'Broadway or bust' gal. I want to try it. I want to see if it works. I want to see what it's like. Get a couple of credits on my resumé and then continue to be as successful as possible right here."

She's blessed with a supportive family, and sees no reason to leave just yet.

See Henderson in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" at Harlequin Productions in Olympia through Nov. 27.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.