By Alec Clayton
Billie Holiday was the heart and soul of jazz from the 1930s through the 1950s. She put that period’s violent racism front and center in some of her songs — undeniably and often uncomfortably, as demonstrated by her signature song’s effect on audiences. “Strange Fruit” is Abel Meeropol’s heartbreaking and powerful ballad about lynching: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees … “
Legendary jazz writer Nat Hentoff called her style and voice “a texture simultaneously steel-edged and yet soft inside.”
Near the end of Holiday’s life, addicted to drugs, suffering from cirrhosis and financially strapped, she was reduced to performing in cheap bars outside New York City because New York police took away her cabaret card; thus, she was not permitted to perform in any establishment that served alcoholic beverages. Four months before her untimely death in 1959, she performed at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Philadelphia.
The musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, winner of two Tony Awards in 2014, is based on that performance.
The modern jazz trio of Addison Daniels on piano, Lamar Lofton on bass and Maria Wulf on drums entertains the audience before the play begins. Then Daniels assumes the role of piano man Jimmy Powers and welcomes patrons to Emerson’s Bar and Grill. He introduces Holiday (Alexandria J. Henderson), who walks out in a sleek, white gown (designed by Darren Mills) and elbow-length gloves. We later see these gloves cover her track marks.
For the next 80 minutes or so, Holiday sings and talks in a rambling manner about her troubled life as a traveling performer in a segregated South, her admiration for the singer Bessie Smith, her tumultuous love life, her addiction and arrests and time spent in prison. Her stories are as soulful and heart-wrenching as her songs — “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child,” “When a Woman Loves a Man,” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” — and they’re sprinkled with bitter, sometimes raunchy humor.
Henderson’s voice is smokey and clear. Her inflection, phrasing and tempo are much like Holiday’s, and her facial expressions and bodily movements speak of a woman of strong convictions who’s been beaten down. Watching her perform feels as much like being in the bar when the real Holiday was performing as is possible in a theatrical production.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is playing in repertory with Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical and Until the Flood, a Pulitzer Prize finalist about the social uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of Michael Brown.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 10 and Sunday, Nov. 21
7:30 p.m. Fridays, Nov. 12 and 19; Sunday, Nov. 14; Tuesdays, Nov. 16 and 23; Saturday, Nov. 27
Harlequin Productions’ State Theater, 202 4th Ave. E, Olympia