Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill by Lanie Robertson shows us the great and tragic vocalist Billie Holiday in the final days of her career. The show is simple but by no means easy to do. It’s basically a monologue woven around some of Holiday’s famous hits.
Director Tommye Myrick staged an excellent production of this biography at JuJu Bag Cafe, an attractive little cabaret space on Franklin Avenue. John Grimsley designed the 1950s nightclub with a standup microphone, flanked by a bar and a three-piece band.
After the band plays a few numbers, Buster the Emcee (Bobbie Johnson) announces Lady Day, who does not appear. Finally, he goes back stage to get her. Holiday (Sharon Martin) is drunk. She goes to the onstage bar, where club owner Emerson (Alton Smith) fills her glass. Playing a drunk is a fine line and Martin walked it with assurance. She was simultaneously charming and pitiful. She sang beautifully and she has an unusual timbre in her voice that suggests Billie’s distinct, haunting lilt.
Holiday says she’s glad to be back in Philadelphia. We later learn her New York cabaret license was revoked, preventing her from performing in any Big Apple bar. The once wealthy star has fallen on hard times, but she had already survived hard times. She started poor, spent time working in a brothel and got her first singing gig by luck. She went into a joint with a sign out for a dancer. When the owners saw how pathetic she was as a dancer, they asked her to sing. Then, they gave her a job.
She spent time in prison because of a problem with heroin, and she blamed the hard drugs on her first husband. She often laughs as she tells her tales, caught between amusement and hysteria.
This tragicomic mood pervades her story of touring with Artie Shaw’s band. Shaw and the band members were white. Southerners did not like to see a black woman on stage with white men, but Shaw and his musicians sympathized with Holiday. If she had to go in the back door of a hotel, they went in the back door too. Everything came to a head one evening when Billie had to use the bathroom. The manager said there was no bathroom for black women. After considerable squabbling, Holiday urinated on the floor.
Humiliation was not the only thing African Americans had to face. Holiday underlines racial terrorism in the South by singing “Strange Fruit.”
Myrick kept the show entertaining and involving. She may extend the run and it’s well worth a trip.