“Don’t threaten me with love, baby. Let’s just go walking in the rain,” is a quote attributed to the late, and lost-too-soon, singer Billie Holiday (1915-1959). Creative Cauldron’s production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill picks up from this Holiday quote to be one extraordinary, bewitching, helter-skelter walk in a chilled night time pouring rain. Little love in sight.
This particular production of Lady Day, led me to care about Billie Holiday as a person; not just as an astonishing singer. This Cauldron production gave a spotlight, though a harsh one, on Holiday (aka Lady Day) as an individual human being; a Black Life that mattered, an abused woman who lived before these #MeToo times. And this production smashes through what has been a knock on the musical for a long time; that the book is too dark, the storyline too jagged, that viewers don’t want to go down into such a rabbit hole of despair without a happy ending.
Starring Helen Hayes Award-recipient Iyona Blake, Lady Day provided audience members way more than a musical with fine singing, but an intimate glimpse into a life full of self-destruction from opiates and alcohol. With pure, affecting direction by Matt Conner, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is one tough, searing, unapologetic musical that is not for the skittish.
Written by Lanie Robertson, Lady Day is an account of the last days of Billie Holiday as she attempts to give one more go at performing in a small South Philly jazz club just before complications from a life full of misery and pain do her in. In Lady Day, I watched Blake inhale the Holiday persona and then turn herself into Holiday as a living, breathing being. Over the course of an intermission-free 90 minutes, I watched Blake in an arc from a big-voiced, bright-eyed, full of fine humor chanteuse shrink before me, her voice becoming smaller, her memory fading.
With a selection of 16 songs and plenty of intimate story-telling, Blake does so much more than hauntingly sing Holiday’s signature songs whether cute upbeat jazzy numbers like “Baby Doll,” or “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” or those with a ragged, tired edge of despair such as the anthems of “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child.”
But, let me move beyond Blake’s singing. Blake builds on her Helen Hayes recipient performance in the Cauldron’s Caroline, or Change and gives a truly stellar performance. She acts and speaks with authority, providing one of the most authentic, intimately wrought portrayals of someone hooked on the need for a fix to wipe out all the bad shit that had been done to her since she entered the world. With her voice inflected, her physical mannerism so well-suited to her Holiday portrayal, Blake is simply haunting whether singing or telling stories. My DC Theater Arts colleague E.A. Aymar’s review is a beauty for his description of Blake’s Lady Day.
Now, for me, the Cauldron production could be before an audience at the right time. It could be that with the current opiate crises striking at rich and poor households alike, with life expectancy of white individuals being affected by addictions to opiates, that Robertson’s book is no longer a story about “other” folk.
Yes, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill should be seen for its truth-telling and its music. Yes, it is a show that is emotionally heavy and built around the fragility of human life. Yes, it could be a dive too deep for those coming for more than the singing and fine music provided by Mark Meadows and his trio of DeAnte Haggerty-Willis (Guitar), Brandon Lee Harris (Bass) and Keith Butler Jr (Drums). For me, the production was exquisite in its raw revealing of the effects prejudice, bad men and disastrous relationships can have.
So, let me end with these thoughts. Blake sings as if she were at a Sunday church service, singing her woes to the congregation. She wants some kind of salvation. Conner’s astute direction does not mince words or soften the message for the audience.
Together Blake and Conner bring these two quotes from Holiday to bold life; “I sing what I feel” and “I sing what grabs me.” Together they bring the inner workings of Holiday into fuller light.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is an extraordinary production for the music and singing. But, there is so much more to it. One more note, leave yourself some time to visit with the Mississippi juke-joint photographic work of Valerie Makepeace on the foyer walls of the Cauldron. The photos add their own juke-joint juice to the production.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Song List: (Billie Holiday won multiple Grammies; all posthumously):
“Gimme a PIGFOOT (And a Bottle of Beer)
“I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone”
When a Woman Loves a Man”
“What a Little Moonlight Can Do”
“Crazy She Calls Me
“God Bless the Child”
“Somebody’s On My Mind
“Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”
“Them There Eyes”