Who is Zahra Newman?
An actor, born in Jamaica, currently playing in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill – a one-woman show about Billie Holiday. An ornithophobe, lover of VEEP (and anything Armando Iannucci), and Masters student of International Relations at UNSW.
What would you do differently from what you do now?
As a teen I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, but in hindsight, I think I was more attracted to debate and discourse than the law itself. As my partner (who is a lawyer) constantly reminds me, “it’s the legal system, not the justice system…”. But overall, I’d say I’ve been fortunate enough to pursue a career that I wanted, rather than one I felt compelled to do.
Who inspires you and why?
Lots of people in big and small ways – some of my friends who’ve managed to achieve tertiary study while parenting small children… James Baldwin… the Reggae Girlz (Jamaican women’s football team)…
What would you do to make a difference in the world?
That’s a tough one. Lots of potentials. I think given my background and current areas of academic interest, I’d say addressing global economic disparity between nation states, particularly for small island developing states in the Global South (yes, that involves debt cancellation). And on another level, I’d wish for more grace under pressure, for myself, and everyone else.
Favourite holiday destination and why?
Totally biased, but, Jamaica. Particularly Port Antonio where I was born
When friends come to town, what attraction would you take them to, and why?
I’d take them for a trek through the Blue Mountains range (particularly Blackheath), late afternoon sunset picnic on the hill at Sydney Park, and emergency late night pasta and hip-hop at Big Poppas in Darlinghurst.
What are you currently reading?
I keep Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, close by while doing the show. Just in case I need to check or be reminded of things. I’m also fairly knee deep in academic literature about international legal and political positions on reparations to the Caribbean for Transatlantic Enslavement. Also I’m reading The Uncaged Sky by Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert.
What are you currently listening to?
Given the show, I’ve been returning regularly to Billie Holiday’s catalogue, while also listening to more contemporary jazz like Walter Smith III and alternative jazz like Taylor McFerrin. For good measure I’m also partial to a bit of Fela Kuti while getting ready for the show.
A state of mind, and very subjective. Much like freedom
What does the future hold for you?
Hopefully continuing to pursue both my academic and creative pursuits without too much chaos and mayhem.
Zahra stars as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – which plays the Belvoir St Theatre from 14 September, before playing the Fairfax Studio – Arts Centre Melbourne from 19 October 2023.
Image: Zahra Newman as Billie Holiday – photo by Matt Loxton