The short, often unhappy life of jazz legend Billie Holiday was so packed with drama that when you recall the 1972 movie starring Diana Ross as Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues, it’s a wonder the filmmakers felt the need to fictionalize much of it. After all, with a troubled childhood, drug addiction, abusive husbands, etc. offstage, and both triumphs and disasters onstage, there’s plenty of factual material to work with.
In Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, currently running at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, we get playwright Lanie Robertson’s take on Holiday’s life and career from Holiday herself, as she performs one of the last gigs before her death in 1959, at a dive bar in South Philadelphia. Stripped of her cabaret license because of drug convictions, she’s unable to perform in most New York venues, down on her luck but still with some of the Holiday magic that won her fans.
Backed by a supportive accompanist, Jimmy Powers (the talented Levi Barcourt), Billie (Tony winner Melba Moore) is struggling through the evening’s performance, giving her audience something of what they want (hits like “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “God Bless the Child” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”) while occasionally breaking off to complain about her situation or look back at hard times. There were plenty of those for Holiday, from working in a brothel to falling for the wrong men to cold turkey withdrawal from heroin while in prison to being refused bathroom facilities while on the road in the South with Artie Shaw’s band. Through it all, she did retain a love for singing, and a need to do it, inspired by her idols while growing up, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.
The actress playing Holiday faces a daunting challenge, especially because the show presents her near the end of her life, when physically and mentally she was not at the height of her powers. And Holiday’s voice was famously limited although memorable—and inimitable. So portraying her here means walking a fine line. Billie’s voice by 1959 was not what it had been, but who wants to pay to hear a Broadway actress like Moore sing poorly? Likewise, as Billie sometimes stumbles through her words to Jimmy or the audience, you might question whether the hesitations are Billie’s or Moore’s. What's acting and what's not?
But there’s no doubt that Moore delivers Holiday’s vulnerability, hurt and sometimes earthy language with believability, and that on songs like “Don’t Explain” or “Strange Fruit,” she’s conveying the deep emotional truth the lyrics provide. While Moore is years older than Holiday lived to be, she both sounds and looks (in a white lacy gown designed by Patricia Gregory and a wig by Joyce Ward) good. And her band (including Kenny Walker on bass guitar and James Varnado on drums) goes from smoking hot on a “The Lady Is a Tramp” intro to fun fare like “Gimme a Pig Foot” to quieter moments with skill.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is a touching, often haunting reflection on the good and the bad that made Holiday what she was. The show continues through April 8; to see if any tickets become available for the sold-out production, call 366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.