As much a searing drama as a vocal concert, Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is the story of Billie Holiday’s life, a life filled with the joy of music and the pain of living in a segregated society that scorned and punished black people for the sin of their very existence. Her story reaches back to slave days. Her grandmother, a woman who bore sixteen children by an Irish-American plantation owner named Fagan, was in her nineties when she died in the same bed as her young grandchild, who went by the name of Eleanora Fagan. The great songstress borrowed the name”Billie” from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and adopted the variation of “Holiday,” after the birth name of her biological father, musician Clarence Halliday. There are too many instances of her difficult life to catalog here, but she survived rape, prison, drug addiction, and the everyday scorn of white society. She also hit the heights of musical greatness as one of the most iconic of Twentieth Century vocalists. She sang at Carnegie Hall, twice.
In a roughly ninety-minute show, the excellent Karole Foreman brings Billie Holiday to vivid life in a performance that is thrilling and extraordinarily moving. Set in Philadelphia, a city Billie Holiday despised because of an unjust run-in with the law that sent her to languish in prison for a year and a day, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is filled with humor and pathos. Supported by her superb accompanist, Jimmy Powers (Stephan Terry), Ms. Foreman sings more than a dozen songs, impeccably delivered in the Billie Holiday style. It is not so much an impression, but rather a living, breathing evocation of her spirit, with all the vocal tics and quirks that made the great artist unique.
In the play, it is 1959 and Billy Holiday needs to be coaxed on stage by her accompanist. She is at the very end of her career just months before her death. She wears a long white gown and white finger-less opera gloves up past her elbows. Billie comes on stage reluctantly, but is mollified by the sight of white gardenias on a nearby table, her signature flower. She also has plenty of gin in bottles next to the piano, which she sips methodically all through the night. It affects her voice not a bit, but the steady drinking has a growing, subtle effect.
Ms. Foreman as Billie develops a sweet, self-effacing rapport with the audience, telling all the important stories of her life from childhood to the present moment, interspersed with songs that are heavy with love and desire, as well as loss. She roams out into the audience talking and making eye contact and even touching some as she spins her tales. Sitting on the aisle in the third row, I got a sweet dose of her charisma in an all too brief exchange of smiles and glances.
Stephen Terry, at the piano as Jimmy Powers, supports Ms. Foreman musically and emotionally with faultless playing, and assists Billie with care and concern as she descends into an alcoholic fog. The song list has a lot of favorites—“God Bless the Child;” “When a Man Loves a Woman;” “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness;” “Crazy He Calls Me.” The songs are profoundly affecting, none more so than “Strange Fruit,” that puts to music the horror of lynching. A song of extraordinary emotional power; just the memory of it makes my eyes get moist as I write this. In the theatre I needed a hanky. I confess to being an emotional sap. When the audience leapt up at curtain call for an instantaneous standing ovation that went on and on, tears rolled down my cheeks.
Superbly directed by Wren T. Brown, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill benefits from the talents of set designer Yuri Okahana-Benson; lighting designer Donna Ruzika; costume designer Kim DeShazo; sound designer Corwin Evans; prop designers Patty and Gordon Briles; and hair and wigs designer Anthony Gagliardi. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. The production stage manager is Pat Loeb.
Produced by caryn desai and presented by International City Theatre, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill runs through November 3 (with a special added performance on Saturday, November 2 at 2pm) at International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 East Seaside Way in Long Beach. Don’t miss this show. See it while you can; it’s worth the drive!