Review by Jenifer Moore of ”Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”: Humsn Race Theatre
What becomes of the one greatest contributors to the history of jazz following a turbulent life of abuse, prejudice, and addiction? This is a question that the Human Race Theatre Company skillfully answers with “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” now playing until September 29 at the Metropolitan Art Center’s Loft Theatre in downtown Dayton, Ohio.
The play, directed by HRTC Founding Resident Artist Scott Stoney, follows Billie Holiday, or “Lady Day”, in 1959 during one of her final performances at a shoddy bar in South Philadelphia. Day, given the nickname by her friend and music partner Lester Young recounts her rough childhood, stormy love affairs, and racist experiences as an African American performing artist over the course of 80 minutes in the season opener of the company’s 33rd season, rightfully titled “Women of Influence: Their Power, Passions & Pitfalls.”
Chicago native Tanesha Gary is raw, unfiltered and ravishing in her portrayal as Day at a time where women entertainers–especially African American—were expected to be prim and refined. At the play’s onset, Gary saunters onto an intimately constructed stage in true Lady Day style wearing a regal long white dress with satin gloves and her signature gardenia pinned to her wrist. Accompanied by the Jimmy Peters jazz trio (who happen to be local to the Dayton area), she takes a drink of something strong, dark and neat to get the mood going and proceeds to take us on a musical journey of her life in an effort to prove that she still has the ‘it’ factor.
Gary’s soulful renditions of Day’s famous songs such as “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child,” and “When a Woman Loves a Man,” are to be expected part of the play. However, Gary’s authentic and heart wrenching portrayal of Day performing the songs is a welcomed surprise. The pain, anguish, and hope shown in the performance of these songs and others can be felt like a knife to the chest while watching someone speedingly fall from grace due to life’s circumstances. Troubles including arrests for drug possession and abusive relationships at the height of her success begin to diminish her legacy. Coupled with the struggles of black entertainers in the 1950s where they are good enough to sing and dance, but not to use the restroom and sit in the dining room for a meal, make a recipe for disaster in her final performances. Much like the theatre’s title season, you can expect to be delighted at the strength her voice delivers but saddened as you realize what it took to get her to this emotionally fragile stage.
The simplicity of the set with the band instruments and a single mic surrounded by five tables each with a couple of chairs draw audiences in giving off the view of the show similar to lounges and nightclubs in the 1950s and 60s. Playwright Lanie Robertson’s incredible foresight to connect the music to drawn out and incoherent monologues of Day’s life experience as she spirals downward invites audiences to see how music can be healing in a time of turmoil. Day’s resentments bubble to the surface in the culmination of the play where she ultimately fades into the darkness of defeat. However, Day’s pioneering vocal style throughout her 30-year career will be remembered in the hearts of music lovers forever.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is a part of the Human Race Theatre’s Woman of Influence season and runs until September 29. Tickets and more information are available at www.humanracetheatre.org or by calling Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630, and at the Schuster Center box office.