At one point in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” which is currently being presented at the Vanguard Theater in Montclair, Lady Day — the immortal jazz singer Billie Holiday — takes a break from her nightclub show to spend some time offstage. When she comes back, it is clear from her slurred words and the wobble in her walk that she has indulged in some kind of illegal substance.
Jimmy Powers — her well-intentioned pianist, music director and boyfriend — tries to cover for her by saying she is feeling a little under the weather and had to see a backstage doctor. But Lady Day isn’t having any of it.
“Don’t pull that phony doctor shit … these is my friends here,” she says, referring to her fans. “They know I’m not sick.”
This is one of many moments in Lanie Robinson’s 1986 play that is dedicated to portraying Holiday as a woman unafraid to confront reality head-on, in her life, just as she unleashed powerful, sometimes painful emotions in her music. The play is set in a single night, in a less-than-glamorous South Philadelphia nightspot, four months before Holiday’s 1959 death at the age of 44. In the course of it, we get a sense of what made Holiday so special, as an artist, and the strength of the forces that drove her to her death.
The tragedy, of course, is that as powerful as Holiday was — as an artist and as a personality — she was powerless in the face of her addiction. This unassuming nightclub, with its brick wall in the back and photos of jazz greats filling the walls, comes to represent a kind of heart of darkness that Holiday is unable to escape.
Tracy Conyer Lee plays Holiday and Darnell White plays Jimmy in this production, which is directed by Vanguard Theater Company artistic director Janeece Freeman Clark and runs through Dec. 17. (Two other cast members, drummer Gregory Bufford and bassist Belden Bullock, are onstage, too, forming Holiday’s casually virtuosic backing trio with White, but these are non-speaking parts.)
Lee, who has played Holiday before, sings well and has an appropriately larger-than-life presence. White complements her as the competent, accommodating Jimmy, a nice guy who is just trying to keep the crowd happy and help Holiday get through this show without falling apart.
Holiday sings about 15 songs in this show, including, of course, her signature songs “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child.” Not that she is happy about it. Holiday tells the crowd that she is contractually obligated to sing them. “But I’m not like that,” she adds. “See, I got to sing the way I feel. I got to sorta roam around awhile, find the song — or more like let the song find me.”
She opens with the moody “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” but is soon singing upbeat versions of songs such as “When a Woman Loves a Man” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” Things seem to be going reasonably well. But she talks for a long time before, after and during “Crazy He Calls Me,” touching on some difficult topics, including her frustration at not having children, her troubled marriage to Sonny Monroe, and the brothel where she worked as a teenager — and where she started listening to records.
She says she was enamored, particularly, of Louis Armstrong’s “feeling” and Bessie Smith’s “big sound.” “Between the two of ’em, I sorta got Billie Holiday,” she says.
She starts talking about prejudice, and tries out some awkward jokes on the subject (including “I knew a nice white person — once!”). Then she sings two songs associated with Smith, “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer” and “Baby Doll,” and talks some more about her early days as a singer.
She’s getting angrier now, venting about the racism she’s dealt with, and her legal problems, and Sonny. Jimmy tries to reign her in, unsuccessfully. But she does eventually sing “God Bless the Child.”
The rest of show continues like this, with lots of talking, and some inspired singing when the mood strikes her. She abandons the stage at one point to drink at the bar, and continues talking. She makes that offstage trip mentioned above, and re-emerges clutching her adorable pet dog.
Jimmy does coax some more upbeat songs out of her (“Easy Living,” “Somebody’s on My Mind”) but the second half of the show is mostly made up of pained ballads, and scowling reminiscences.
Finally, she talks about just wanting a nice home, and kids, and a club of her own “where I can sing to all of my friends. That’s all. What else is there?”
Then she sings the show’s most desolate and devastating song, “Deep Song,” which seems to express her personal truth more than any of the numbers that came before it. “I only know misery has to be part of me,” she sings.
The show ends, as she has gone as far as she can. And, we’re left believing, just about as far as anyone could.
The Vanguard Theater in Montclair presents “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” through Dec. 17. Visit vanguardtheatercompany.org.
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