Without a doubt the incomparable Billie Holiday is one of America’s greatest jazz performers. Being a woman of color in the early part of the 20th Century wasn’t easy, and Ms. Holiday paid a heavy price. Her story is told in the one-woman show entitled Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill. The play is an incredible journey and is currently being performed at ArtsWest.
The play takes place in March 1959 at a small dive bar in South Philadelphia. The piano man Jimmy Powers is already playing when the legendary Billie Holiday steps on the stage with a surly comment and a drink in her hand. Immediately she goes into the classic early jazz hits that made her career. Between songs she tells stories from her tumultuous life; stories of her past loves including men, singing, and heroin. She recalls her early life, being born Eleanora Fagan, granddaughter of a former slave, and shares stories about working at a ‘fancy house’, being raped at an early age, and finally finding escape and joy in the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Each story is told with another cocktail sip until Lady Day is reliving the bitterness found in broken loves, the continual arrests for drug usage, and the blatant bigotry found in the clubs she performed in all over the country. The night takes its toll on Ms. Holiday until she is only a shell of what she once was, and the audience loses her to her own demise. Unknowing to us all, she would be dead within three months time.
Darrius Willrich portrays the piano player “Jimmy Powers”, the final accompanist and (alleged) fiancée of Ms. Holiday. His piano skills are undisputed and he plays with expertise the traditional jazz songs that made Billie Holiday a legend. His interaction with Ms. Holiday is minimal, but when he does address the strong willed/ailing Lady Day, he does with poignancy and a strong character.
Felicia Loud takes on the challenging role of “Billie Holiday” AKA “The Lady Day”. At first her voice is soft and lacks some of the grittiness most people associate with Ms. Holiday’s singing. That changes later on as the character indulges more, the tones and control are reflected in how she presents the stories and the songs of her life. Ms. Loud handles the early hits very well. She is bubbly during “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, and practically jovial as she rocks along “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)”. But it is the classic songs that we have come for, and Ms. Loud delivers them. “God Bless the Child”, a song Ms. Holiday wrote when angered by her mother, is sung with such tenderness that it makes the audience devoted to her. It is later on that she sings the song that became forever associated and a signature of Ms. Holiday, “Strange Fruit”. Ms. Loud’s vocals take full control, seducing us with the melody and hitting hard with the imagery that rips the heart out of every audience member. She shows the powerful breaking point the song has on Ms. Holiday, and the terrible price it demands of her.
The play is definitely an evening of powerful theatre. It is not necessary to have any prior knowledge of Billie Holiday to get the full spectrum of her illustrious, if not tragic life. The songs speak for themselves and there are reasons why some of these hits are considered to be American Classics. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill recalls one of the greatest performers with some of America’s best-loved jazz standards.
Lanie Robertson wrote the script. It is based on one of the final performances of Billie Holiday, the show premiered in Atlanta, 1986 opening Off-Broadway later that year. It wouldn’t be until 2014 that the show opened on Broadway staring Audra McDonald. The show would win in both of its nominated Tony Award categories; 2014 Sound Design of a Play (Steve Canyon Kennedy), and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play (Audra McDonald). It would be Ms. McDonald’s 6th (and record holding) Tony Award. HBO recorded Ms. McDonald’s performance in a special broadcasting of the show that premiered in 2016.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is running through July 8, 2018 at ArtsWest in West Seattle. Get more info and ticket here.