Even if you aren’t familiar with the tragedies in Billie Holiday’s life, you can hear them. They’re the dusky bass notes that haunt even her happy songs. They’re the sad cymbal beat behind her sassy flirting, her swearing, her minor key cackling. “I do the blues feelin’ with a jazz beat,” she says in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. There’s a moment late in the play when, after staggering offstage, she walks back on with her white glove pulled down, revealing a telltale blue bruise down her arm. That’s essentially what this one-woman show does: It peels back the dressing – the upbeat jazz, the celebrity, the showiness – to reveal the blues and the bruises beneath.
The cabaret-as-play is set in 1959, four months before the songstress’ death from cirrhosis at age 44. To re-create the feel of the titular Philadelphia dive, Phoenix Theatre’s guitar-shaped stage is surrounded by theatergoers sitting at nightclub tables. The setup, and the play’s conversational tone, breaks the third wall so effectively the audience bantered with Billie Holiday as if we were really at a bar.
Except, of course, it isn’t Holiday. It’s Yolanda London, which for the first few minutes is awkward. Trying to emulate Holiday’s vintage vocals in “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” and “When a Woman Loves a Man,” London rolled the lyrics round her mouth like she was tying a cherry stem with her tongue. A few times during her monologue, she lapsed into a Jamaican accent. But very soon – as if by magic – the affect disappeared. And she utterly became Billie Holiday as she sang and sloshed back whiskey and wove stories and swigged gin and digressed and confessed and slowly cracked open, bleeding her soul on the stage.
It’s at times humorous, at times harrowing. Holiday recounts a story about a racist maître d’ who pushes her to the point of peeing, in retaliation, on the woman’s shoes. After the audience’s laughter dies, Holiday demands the band play “Strange Fruit,” her signature song about lynchings. The violet and cobalt spotlight bathes London in literal blues as she lets loose notes of pure, unalloyed pain.
Recent race clashes – Ferguson, Baltimore, Trump rallies – make her lament feel less like an echo of prejudice past than a fresh fruit that still leaves a bitter taste in our mouths. Unfortunately, Billie Holiday’s other emotional bruises – addiction, sexual abuse, domestic violence (revealed in increasingly raw between-song banter) – are just as current.
But as another self-destructing chanteuse, Amy Winehouse, said, “Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen.” And because tragedy is timeless, so is haunted and haunting Billie Holiday, forever voicing our inner blues and giving them a jazz beat.
"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill"
Through April 3
(photos courtesy Phoenix Theatre)
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