She’s 72 years old, a Tony Award-winner who’s starred in movies and released more than two dozen albums over the past 48 years. But Melba Moore still talks in terms of developing her career.
“I really need to get more serious, in-depth acting under my belt,” she said in a recent phone interview.
Moore is in Sarasota, performing at Westcoast Black Theatre in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Moore plays Billie Holiday, performing in a run-down Philadelphia bar in 1959, singing songs and telling stories about her life, which ended later that year.
“It seems like every other black female actor has done this role,” Moore said.
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Moore, the daughter of jazz saxophonist Teddy Hill and early R&B singer Bonnie Davis, had set out to be a music educator when a composer friend of hers, Galt McDermot, offered her a role in a new musical he was working on called “Hair.” Moore originally played Dionne, but when a then-unknown actor named Diane Keaton left the show, Moore took over the much larger role of Sheila.
It seems like every other black female actor has done this role.
“I became the first black actress to replace a white actress in a lead role (on Broadway),” Moore said.
She won a Tony Award for her next role, in “Purlie,” and then went on to Geoffrey Holder’s “Timbuktu.” Some insignificant stage roles followed until Moore landed a role in “Les Miserables” on Broadway in 1995.
“I’ve really only done four plays,” she said.
Despite her early Tony Award, her career has been focused on recording. She’s had a lot of chart success in the United States (“Love’s Comin’ at Ya” made it to No. 2 on the dance charts in 1982), but some of her songs have fared better in Great Britain.
Having musician parents, including a mother who was a singer — Davis had a No. 1 R&B hit in 1948 with “Don’t Stop Now” — encouraged her to find her own sound.
You have to find your own style. You have to listen to yourself, which it still hurts to do. You have to listen to yourself you have to decide, ‘What is this made of?’
“People would say, ‘You’ll never be able to sing as well as your mother’,” Moore said. “So I didn’t try to sound like her. You have to find your own style. You have to listen to yourself, which it still hurts to do. You have to listen to yourself you have to decide, ‘What is this made of?’ ”
Her recordings have ranged from pop to R&B to disco. Her latest album was 2016’s R&B release “Forever Moore.”
Inhabiting the spirit of Billie Holiday for WBTT has honed Moore’s acting skills and given her a deeper appreciation of Holiday’s music.
“For us, Billie is one of the very iconic black singers of that era,” she said. “She’s one of the greats. But what is it we like about her? Most of us don’t really know. But now that I’ve studied the songs, I see that they’re very precise. The lyrics are very concentrated. And she didn’t sound like anyone else.”
Details: Feb. 28-April 8, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Regular seating is sold out. Onstage cafe-style seating has been added. $75 for onstage seating. Student/Active Military $20. 941-366-1505, westcoastblacktheatre.org.