Billie Holiday died in 1959, but memories of her remain in Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, now at Rep Stage in Columbia, Md. Her voice has influenced American music for decades, but nobody, no matter how good, can ever really recapture the sheer cussed essence of the original woman.
Rep Stage gives it a good try, though, with its intimate tabletop seating and smoky lighting (designer Jay Herzog.)
Celeste Jones, as Billie Holiday, is a trifle young for the role – Holiday died at forty-four, looking more like sixty at the end – but she has a voice well suited to a Holiday homage. That drawling, sad and tinny child’s voice that was Billy Holiday is tough to replicate, but Jones does a good job musically. There’s patter in between the songs, though not much to hang a performance on. Billie gets drunker and more honest as the evening progresses, assumed to be a remembrance of her last club appearance before her death two months later. At one point she exits for a quick fix- but as a whole it’s rather disjointed and Jones has a tough time connecting those few dots. If you came in knowing nothing about Holiday’s life, the little bits of information the script gives you would leave you not that much more knowledgeable.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
closes November 20, 2017
Details and tickets
So, as such, it’s less a traditional play than a showcase for the music of a remarkable woman. But what music!: “God Bless the Child”, “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness”, “Don’t Explain”– and her finest piece, “Strange Fruit”, that melancholy and unforgettable song about the lynchings of the south. That, alone, is worth going to hear, and Ms Jones gives this piece in particular her whole heart.
She was the original Amy Winehouse: incredible talent intertwined with an incredible lack of discernment, particularly where men were concerned. Always a heavy drinker, she became addicted to heroin before most of America had even heard of it, and took love to its highest highs and deepest depths, taking the fall for a lover and serving time for narcotics possession. She endured years of discrimination and terrible treatment by managers and nightclubs, and yet her music seemed to keep her aloft til the very end.
A very good trio, led by Wil Lewis II, who also plays Holiday’s pianist Jimmy Powers, does wonders to set the mood.
If you’ve never been to Rep Stage, it’s a bit tricky to find it, set in the wooded campus of Howard Community College. This professional company operates out of the college’s theatre building, the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center. It’s scarcely on the map- my phone’s Google Maps shut down the moment I entered the campus, as did my friend’s. Both of us managed to guess where it was, set in a corner tucked behind a large parking garage.
It seems fitting that the way to Lady Day is a bit hidden, as was the woman herself: and no script or road map could ever tell you what was really in her heart. Her music gives hints; you’ll have to walk the path on good faith that you’re headed in the right direction.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill by Lanie Robertson . Director: Danielle A. Drakes. Music Direction: Wil Lewis III . Cast: Celeste Jones as Billie Holiday; Wil Lewis III as Jimmy Powers; Bassist, Gary Richardson; Drummer, Evander W. McLean . Scenic Design: Mollie Singer . Costume Design: Benjamin Kress . Lighting Design: Jay Herzog . Sound Design: Mark Smedley . Stage Manager: Julie DeBakey Smith Produced by Rep Stage. Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.