Chanel hadn’t acted a day in her life.
So when her fellow Austin chanteuse, Courtney Santana, encouraged her in 2015 to audition for Zach Theatre’s “Sophisticated Ladies,” a revue of Duke Ellington tunes, she protested.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Chanel told Santana. “I’m not an actress. I’m a singer! She says: ‘Fine, you’ll be singing. It’s a musical.’”
Yet by that point in the audition process, the Zach creative team had reached the call-back phase. They let Chanel, a gospel-inflected R&B singer with multiple albums under belt, try out anyway.
“So I walk in and I’m in this cute little Tina Turner dress with all the tassels,” she says. “I sang ‘Take the “A” Train.’”
After Chanel left the room, Zach music director Allen Robertson announced to the team, “When a singer like this comes along, you don’t let her go.”
Not only was she hired virtually on the spot, she went on perform in three subsequent Zach shows. Nowadays, this skyrocketing sensation tears up the stage as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”
“And that’s how my theater career began,” Chanel says with a smile over a light lunch at Trio in the Four Seasons Austin Hotel. “Four shows later — and here I am.”
After just two weeks of excavating Holiday soul most nights and some matinees, surrounded by audience members on a cabaret setting in the Topfer Theatre, she’s the talk of the Austin theater world.
“Chanel takes Holiday on a transformative journey from bubbly jazz chanteuse to early civil rights activist to heartbroken heroin addict,” Andrew J. Friedenthal writes in his adulatory review for the American-Statesman. “There is a simplicity to her performance that allows the depth of Holiday’s pain to shine through in moving and powerful ways.”
There’s more: Producer Dave Steakley plans to move “Lady Day” to the Kleberg Stage, Zach’s medium-sized house, in May after the current run at the larger Topfer ends April 30 to make room for the already scheduled “In the Heights.”
“Singers like Chanel who are not trained actors and sing from a place of grounded truthfulness and emotional conviction in my experience have the ability to transfer these abilities to delivering text,” Steakley says. “Chanel is incredibly intuitive, emotionally available and not afraid to experiment, so she possesses the rawness you need in the rehearsal room to tackle a story like this.”
From singer to singer-actor
At least a sixth generation New Orleanian on both sides of her family, Chanel is the daughter of a pastor and a pastor’s wife with six children. Musical from an early age, she collaborated with her brother who played keyboards, drums and bass guitar.
“I was 6 when I sang my first solo,” she says. “I was so short, they brought up a chair for me to stand on. I sang ‘He Touched Me,’ a gospel song. I am convinced that is when God touched me and anointed me to sing.”
She attended the all-girls St. Mary’s Academy, run by an all-black order of nuns, Sisters of the Holy Family, then she headed to the historically African-American Dillard University in New Orleans.
Still, music remained her muse. By age 19, she had signed her first record deal. She moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream and lived there for 10 years.
There, she met her future husband, Gregory Schwartz, an L.A.-born environmental scientist who now teaches at Laney College in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Their meeting matched the “La La Land” setting.
“I believe in leaving your home looking like a dream,” Chanel says about the day they met. “He was driving past me. Our eyes locked for half a second. I was thinking: ‘Please turn around and come back.’ He did! We talked for an hour as if we had known each other from a past life.”
Schwartz’s academic career later took them to Austin so he could finish his Ph.D. With their divergent careers, they didn’t settle down in a traditional sense.
“Our rule is we have to see each other once a month,” Chanel says, and she laughs. “While he was in Costa Rica working on his soon-to-be-released environmental book, it was me who did the visiting.”
In the groove as Holiday
Like other Zach actors, Chanel sings in the theater’s lounge periodically before appearing in shows.
“I’d sing ‘God Bless the Child’ and mess around with imitating Billie a little bit,” Chanel recalls. “I didn’t know that they had this show in mind. Then I got the call: ‘We want to know if you are at all open to considering this role.’”
After the formal audition for “Lady Day,” director Michael Rader said, “Well, I think we found our girl.”
In 2015, she spoke no lines in “Sophisticated Ladies.” Now, performing with three instrumentalists, she carries almost the entire evening of “Lady Day” on her slender shoulders.
“My heart is pounding before every show,” Chanel admits. “It’s not like she’s some made-up person. This is Billie Holiday. People in the audience saw her live. This moment matters to a lot of people as it does to me. And I’m a perfectionist. It’s got to be on point. I didn’t want people to say, ‘She’s really good for somebody new to theater.’ I wanted to transform that space for the people in that room. I’ve done that with singing, but this is first time through acting.”
To get Holiday’s guttural patter down, Chanel listened to a lot of recorded interviews with Holiday.
“But usually she’s very high,” Chanel says. “In early rehearsals, the director said, ‘We can’t understand what you are saying.’”
She also pulled on memories from her grandmother’s generation.
“There’s a certain patter,” she says. “How people spoke at the time. Sometimes I look in the mirror and say, ‘OK, Grandma, come with me.’ She’s with me all through this process.”
Onstage, her biggest challenge has been handling the overwhelming emotions at random moments.
“I’m not really acting at that time,” she admits. “I’m experiencing. For instance, once in ‘Strange Fruit,’ the graphic lyrics come up, ‘Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,’ and I saw it, I saw this shadow. I barely got through the rest of the song.”
Having some of the audience sitting up onstage might have unnerved other performers, but Chanel is motivated by it.
“I like to touch them, touch their faces, look into their eyes, into their souls,” she says. “There’s an unspoken communication with those people onstage. An unspoken energy. I see compassion. I see embarrassment. It’s not like any other experience. And it’s all in their eyes.”
Of course, she was nervous about the responsibility of taking such a role. Then she saw a post by her friend Brandy Norwood just moments before her performance in “Chicago” at the Kennedy Center.
“She kissed her friend on the cheek and said, ‘You’re my angel,’” Chanel says about the social media post. “And something about the peace in her smile and in her eyes just moments before her big show affected me. Here I am before my big show and I’m doubting myself. No! I can do this and be great and gracious while doing it. Then one of my favorite songs by Whitney Houston came on the radio. The lyrics were, ‘Give me one moment in time when I’m more than I thought I could be.’ And here it was, my moment in time. All my dreams are only a heartbeat away. Tears came into my eyes. I looked into my dressing room mirror and I knew my moment had come.”