It’s 1959, at a small club in South Philly, and Billie Holiday is poised to sing nearly her last gig. Riven with heroin and alcohol addiction, trailed by Federal narcotics agents, and subject to erratic turns of voice and mood, Holiday shares with this club’s audience not just her musical best-of’s, but her rich and harrowing story, in Lanie Robertson’s music-driven one-woman show, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Directed by Kevin R. Free and starring the marvelous Tracey Conyer Lee, Lady Day gracefully honors both Holiday’s art and the suffering that coursed beneath so much of it.
The set of Emerson’s club makes clear the overlapping quadrants of Holiday’s life: On one side, a full wooden bar, to which Holiday returns frequently for refills of whiskey; on the other, against red velvet curtains, Holiday’s pianist Jimmy (Gary Mitchell, Jr., also the band leader) and a bassist (Ross Gallagher) swing impeccably and effortlessly through standards. Down center, on a round platform and in a spot, is the great singer’s microphone; and behind that, a dim, narrow hallway ends at a door to the backstage from where, at the start of the show, she gives her protest to Jimmy, “I can’t.”
But out she strides nonetheless. In strapless white, Lee’s Holiday looks gorgeous and strong, even as you can see the slight waver in her joints; even as she takes a noticeable moment to balance herself. And then she sings. Holiday’s voice, by 1959, had been stripped of some of that signature muted-trumpet timbre, and Lee pulls that quality out sparingly at first, making us lean in with wanting it. But as Holiday is pulled deep into the music, Lee beautifully conveys the magic she finds and makes of it — her sparkling phrasing in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”; the supple sensuality of her voice in “Crazy in Love.”
Holiday knows that audiences want the “old Billie,” that they want to hear “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child,” and, as she says, “all that damn shit.” But she’s on her own program. She off-the-cuffs Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot” with delicious, raucous, wanton abandon. Lee and the musicians time her whims savvily; Jimmy gives her the opening chords of something on the set list, and she’s about to open her mouth to sing, but then, instead, she’s talking about her mother (“the Duchess”), or her addict first love, or Artie Shaw and his white band sitting with her in a “No Coloreds” restaurant’s kitchen, or her year of prison in West Virginia for narcotics — “Being in prison in West Virginia is what’s called double redundant,” as she quips.
There and elsewhere, Holiday’s wit has the glint of an edge honed on hardship and bigotry, and Lee lets us hear both the abundant life-force and the hardness in her humor, the jokes about the “ofays” and “grays” who enacted a world of daily discriminations.
Likewise, Lee fluently conveys the smallest ebbs and flows of Holiday’s mood and confidence: veering between nostalgia and bitterness as she recalls her past; interrupting one standard with a sudden call to Jimmy for “Somebody’s On My Mind,” into which she slips into with a tangible relief of pleasure. As the night goes on, Jimmy watches expressionlessly from beyond the spotlight, helpless but to start up a new rhythm that might stir her from sadness or withdrawal.
And the lower the bottle gets, the more she hunches over, shakes. Still, when she finally gets to “Strange Fruit,” she pulls it out breathtakingly, and Lee conjures the same dignity, grace, and palpable horror that we know from Holiday’s old footage. By the time she sings it, Holiday’s own story, so affectingly told, has both deepened that horror and transcended it.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill | By Lanie Robertson; directed by Kevin R. Free; music direction by Gary Mitchell, Jr. | At Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland | Through October 15 | Thu 2 & 7:30 pm; Fri 7:30 pm; Sat 4 & 8 pm; Sun 2 pm; Wed-Thu 7:30 pm | $35-68 |
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