“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at Phoenix Theatre last night was a triumph of a very special kind of theatre performance. Immersed completely in the life of iconic blues stylist Billie Holiday during a single event shortly prior to her death, the show was set as a late night evening at a jazz club in Philadelphia.
Not for a moment did the performance feel like an acted script. It flowed as a night club evening with tea lights at cozy bar tables, a consummate three-man jazz combo, and pristine elements of Holiday’s signature gardenias–in bouquet, as a set piece suspended and lit magically from the rafters, and as lilting petals that wafted downward to the stage.
And Billie. That is, Yolanda London as Billie Holiday. An attempt to describe her effect risks minimizing the show’s impact.
Entering in a stunning sparkle of pure white that contrasted her richly black skin, the image alone was an arresting picture of forced distinctions between black and white when her accumulated wisdom had taught her the world was never that cleanly delineated, that survival required an acceptance of multi-hued grays. The soul that emerged as she spoke and sang evoked a reverent hush, occasionally pierced by only her own sometimes audacious and increasingly drunken remarks.
Her relationship even to the microphone expressed volumes. Pained adoration of someone who loves fiercely a tormentor passed repeatedly between London and the inanimate mike.
“That’s how it goes when a woman loves a man,” oozed one deceptively simplistic lyric.
The idea wasn’t to impersonate Holiday, nothing so trite. Last night’s mission instead seemed an edict to communicate and carry on the essence that lived inside her. The emotions wrought were whole-hearted, beautifully crafted sound. Neither a huge voice, trained, nor impressive range were required. More than music or lyrics, feelings came out of Yolanda London. She was fluent in the language of Billie Holiday.
“I sing the Blues feeling with the Jazz beat,” she remarked as we listened to plaintive notes while she caressed them into life portraits. “I let the song find me.”
The show needed this kind of essence and immersion to succeed. Those characteristics allowed it to thrive on an individual plane. Comparisons to six time Tony winner Audra MacDonald on Broadway last year or HBO earlier this month were as superfluous in this context as comparisons to Billie herself.
If that was the story of last night’s performance, then supporting actor and jazz piano wizard Geibral Elisha as Jimmy Powers was an equal success. Beyond accompaniment (with fabulous bassist Chris Rose and remarkable drummer Teron Rushing), he provided gentle moral support to the struggling woman he loved.
He knew already about how her music was an expression of not just feeling, but also an escape. When she declared, “Music is light to me,” the crowd too had begun to understood part of our role was to suffer and rally repeatedly with her. Whether it was Billie’s assertion that her mother, “the duchess,” was “the soul of generosity,” her searing ‘childless’ monologue tempered by easy jazz underneath, or her mesmerizing “God Bless the Child” rendition, it was our job to walk alongside an artist soldiering forward despite the heaviest of boots, surviving by creating music to assuage her pain.
When painful exposure became too much to bear, her music (sometimes at the plinking insistence of Jimmy Powers) permitted a passage to easier living. She welcomed (maybe needed?) us, carried us through the transitions with her. And we all breathed easier, even smiled and laughed, at those junctures.
Perhaps the most musically interesting, though most disquieting song London offered was in the halting, heavy notes of emotion in her possessed delivery of Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The song’s minor cadences, laden with metaphor, were of a poplar’s blackened, bloody, rotting, bitter Southern life cycle.
If the evening had drawbacks it was because Billie Holiday’s life had such insurmountable drawbacks. When Holiday took an unscheduled intermission to fall apart offstage, the audience too may have craved a break in the heartache-coverup to which they were bearing witness. Maybe by design, the evening was a difficult if beautiful ceaseless, pounding litany.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at Phoenix Theatre was a personal, intimate history lesson on display, the only genuine way to acquire and appreciate the individual impact of our nation’s past. It is an important work to see, a musical wonder, and a brave testament to our Valley’s breadth of creative talent.