Baltimore native Tanea Renee delivers a riveting world-weary performance as 44-year-old Billie Holiday giving her last live performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. “I’ve come full circle, and my purpose is to embody and do justice to the life of Billie Holiday,” said Renee in a local TV interview.
The setting is in a small bar in south Philly in March of 1959 four months before Holiday’s death in Harlem from heart failure and a hard life of drug and alcohol abuse. It’s late in the evening and Billie is with her road-weary band led by pianist and music director Terry Brewer, who plays Jimmy Powers her partner in musical crime whose back-and-forth banter keeps Billie on track to start the evening, but things go quickly downhill as Billie finishes her third glass of booze.
Over the next hour and a half performance, Tanea Renee as Billie Holiday covers more than a dozen standards from “God Bless the Child” to “Strange Fruit” as she rambles and fills the audience in on the painful roots of each hit. Her mother, whom she affectionately called “The Dutchess,” ran a brothel on Pratt Street and was described as the “Soul of Generosity,” but she threw Billie and her junky husband Sonny Monroe out, which inspired the lyrics of “God Bless the Child,” in 1941.
“The Dutchess used to say my best talent was for pickin’ the rottenest apple in the bunch, an’ poor black skinny Sonny Monroe took the cake for her. Sonny was my first love and my worst love,” says Billie as she is forced to pack her bags and leave Baltimore’s tenderloin district for greener pastures in New York, where she hooked up with Artie Shaw’s white jazz band and headlined at Café Society in Greenwich Village.
Billie survived her childhood trauma by listening to the hits of Louis “Pops” Armstrong and Bessie “Moms” Smith at “sportin'” houses in Baltimore: “That’s when I started to sing, listenin’ to those records.”
I have to admit it took more than a minute for me to warm up to Tanea Renee’s persona as Billie Holiday, who had an iconic “high yellow” pretty girl look that forced her into the horrific life of a child prostitute, as Billie recalled, “when I was over 200 pounds by the time I was 12” in 1927. But Tanea Renee grew on me and the audience as the night wore on as she embodied Billie’s unique phrasing and heady and articulate vocal style.
The other reason to see Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is the presence of Nikkole Salter, who is making her directorial debut as a Pulitzer Prize-nominated director of eight full-length plays including In the Continuum, which she co-authored and performed off-Broadway and which also won her an Obie award as Best New American Play.
As a dramatist and stage actor with extensive credentials including her star role as Lady Macbeth at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, Salter has a signature style that is all over Lady Day and the confident development of Tanea Renee as a rising hometown star.
Kudos also to lighting designer Jorge Arroyo for his spectacular solo lighting of Lady Day. The show closes with several haunting songs and the theater goes black with the exception of Lady Day singing the hushed tones of “Don’t Explain,” and on the back wall, vintage photos of Louie “Pops” Armstrong, Bessie “Moms” Smith, and Lester Young come to life over Lady Day’s shoulders.
Running time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
EXTENDED BY POPULAR DEMAND: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill plays through October 15, 2023, at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets ($20 for students, $66 for seniors, and $74 for general admission), call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online. A limited number of VIP Cabaret tickets close to the stage offering offer an interactive experience are also available for $125 each by visiting centerstage.org or calling (410) 332-0033. Patrons can also visit the box office, located at 700 North Calvert Street.
The program for the production is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional at performances on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturday evenings, and Sunday matinees, and masks are required at performances on Wednesdays and matinees on Saturdays. For the most up-to-date COVID-19 safety guidelines, visit Baltimore Center Stage’s website.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
By Lanie Robertson
Musical Arrangements by Danny Holgate
Directed by Nikkole Salter
Musical Direction by Nolan Williams Jr.