Enter into the Wyndham’s theatre and you will be transported back to 1959 South Philadelphia. On the front of the stalls and the sides of the stage are cabaret tables for the audience to sit back in and soak up the atmosphere of this small, run down bar. And why are we all gathered in this dive? Because the act about to take the stage is the legendary Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Set just four months before her premature death aged just 44, the play sees Holiday perform some of her best-known numbers, chat to the audience about her life and reveal some of the horrors and tragedies to have befallen her.
Throughout the play, Holiday regales the audience with tales of her family, her personal life and her experiences with racism. She is a lady who has experienced the highs of being a high selling recording artists and playing sell out concerts at Carnegie Hall. These are overshadowed by the lows in her life. Working as a teenage prostitute, spells in prison and a dependence on alcohol and drugs.
All of this is highlighted through a use of Holiday’s music, used to great effect to emphasise themes and emotions throughout. Holiday recounts a story of being asked to use the back entrances of venues she was playing and her encounter with a particularly racist maître’d. The stories have a poignancy but are told with great humour and pleasure. The audience respond with laughter and relish the tales. It is then bookended with a performance of Strange Fruit, Holiday’s trademark anti-racism song. The effect is incredibly powerful, intensifying the already vivid lyrics.
Holiday is played by six time Tony award winner Audra McDonald who offers, not an imitation of Holiday, but an embodiment. She exudes a magnetic charm, ensuring all eyes are on her, with graceful effortlessness. McDonald paints an image of a true star nuanced with the tragic facets that eventually led to her death. McDonald is every inch the record breaking, award winning Broadway star.
I entered the theatre not knowing much about Billie Holiday; I was aware of her reputation as a jazz icon and knew a handful of her songs. What Laine Robertson’s play has done is to make Holiday both a real person, showing her flaws and humanity, and cement her reputation as legendary. Seeing this play is to be in the presence of two masters – McDonald and Holiday.