On stage until March 1st at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” traces the downward spiral of jazz singer Billie Holiday’s tragic life while casting a harsh light on the racist rot at the heart of America’s soul.
Brilliantly portrayed by Karole Foreman, Billie has driven down from Harlem that afternoon to perform in the intimate cabaret setting she so loved in a seedy South Philly club. Along with her pianist and last lover Jimmy Powers (played by Stephan Terry), she recreates what would be her final performance, four months before shedied of pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis in July of 1959.
Out of her lifetime of pain and suffering, “Lady Day” highlights Holiday’s heart-rending body of music that lives with us 60 years after she left us.
Throughout the evening, Foreman channels Billie Holiday in performing glorious renditions of a dozen or more of Lady Day’s well-known hits—"God Bless the Child”, "Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness", “Crazy He Calls Me,” and "Strange Fruit" among them. Between songs, Holiday chats with the audience about the hard knocks life has dealt her, from childhood rape and teenage prostitution, to drug addiction and prison, undercut by the pernicious scorn of white society and the incessant stalking of law enforcement. Coming down off the stage as she might have done during a nightclub act, Billie shares her laments about her mother, the abusive men who filled her life, and racist club owners.
More revealing than Diana Ross’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” director Wren T. Brown does a masterful job in taking the audience on a journey that speaks as much about America as it does about the tragic life of a beautiful and talented woman who helped others earn millions but died with only seventy cents in her bank account.
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Out of her lifetime of pain and suffering, “Lady Day” highlights Holiday’s heart-rending body of music that lives with us 60 years after she left us. Foreman doesn’t just perform Holiday’s songs, she captures—evokes—Lady Day’s raspy, untutored textures, with their influences in Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.
During a “medical” break Billie takes backstage late in the evening, Stephan Terry reveals his own powerful singing talent, in addition to the loving way he works to keep his partner on track, interrupting her descent into regret with a few choice piano chords, cajoling her back time and again to the music she so loves to perform. “Singing is living for me,” she says at one point.
Performed originally at in 1986, Lanie Robertson’s loving portrait of Billie Holiday soon moved to New York’s Off-Broadway. A 2014 revival on Broadway brought Audra McDonald her sixth Tony Award playing the title role. “Lady Day” marks artist director, Wren T. Brown’s directorial debut for the Ebony Repertory Theatre.
[dc]“L[/dc]ady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” plays through March 1 at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center (4718 West Washington Boulevard) in Los Angeles. Tickets, $30-50, are available here. Seats at the tables for two onstage and directly in front of orchestra seats are available for $50.
Dick Price & Sharon Kyle