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Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Writer: Lanie Robertson
Director: Mitchell Butel
Belvoir Street Theatre
September 14 – October 15, 2023

Belvoir Street Theatre’s presentation of playwright Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is a chance for lovers of early jazz music to take a trip down memory lane and revel in this atmospheric reproduction of the era.

Not exactly the glitz of the usual cabaret venues but the singer up on the stage is the legendary Billie Holiday, also known by her alternate moniker, Lady Day, a name stemming from some playful nicknaming by her friend and musical partner Lester Young – he called her “Lady Day” and she called him “The Prez”.

Billie Holiday’s ability to make any song her own with her dramatic intensity and idiosyncratic phrasing is not easily replicated, but director Mitchell Butel’s casting of Zahra Newman, who comes with extensive experience in musical theatre, is an inspired decision.  She gives a stellar performance both vocally and in the characterisation of the tragic singer.

The set (Ailsa Paterson) is a convincing replica of a run-down South Philadelphia bar – the stage is surrounded by about ten café-style tables where patrons are attended to by a bow-tied, white dinner-jacketed waiter. On stage the “Jimmy Powers Trio” comprising piano (Kym Purling), double bass (Victor Rounds) and drums (Calvin Welch) are playing energetic jazz. The walls surrounding the “bar” are of bare brick, missing pieces of plaster, but the red lighting (Goven Rubin) creates an authentic sense of a cosy, smoky warmth.

After a crescendo on the drums Zahra/Billie first appears, looking stunning in a sumptuous ivory satin evening gown. At first a backlit silhouette, then in full spotlight, she launches into her first number “I Wonder Where Our Love has Gone”, a wistful, lovelorn plaint of a woman unlucky in love. The song compilation covers more than a dozen Holiday’s most loved numbers, ranging in mood from romantic (“When a Woman Loves a Man”, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”), humorous (“Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”), philosophic and emotional (“God Bless the Child”) and the deeply moving “Strange Fruit”.

Between songs Zahra/Billie tells her story, weaving between tables, soliciting refills of the cocktail glass she uses as a prop throughout her performance. She convincingly gives the appearance of becoming progressively drunk – stumbling, forgetting words, slurring her speech.

Her story is the classic one of poverty in pre-Civil Rights America: teenage parents who only stayed together briefly, predatory neighbours, domestic jobs, two abusive husbands – then John Hammond hears her sing in a Harlem nightclub. Under the guise of inebriation Zahra/Billie delivers her story in sound bites, aphoristically – it’s for the listener to add the perception. Interestingly, she never sees herself as a victim – the most harrowing details are delivered in a matter-of-fact way. More than once she mentions “men in blue suits with brass buttons and white socks”. These were officials from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics who had begun to target her due to her heroin use.

But there is humour, too, in the telling of her struggles when touring as a black woman in segregated areas of America. She became one of the few black woman singers allowed to sing with an all-white band and this could raise difficulties when on tour. When told by a malicious hotel employee that there were no “facilities” for black women performers, Billie simply solved the problem, quite naturally, on the spot.

So, then, if you have a yearning for an evocation of Billie and her music, in a smoky bar of yesteryear, do not miss this heartfelt but enjoyable production – miss it at your peril!






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