by Morgan Lindsey Tachco · April 22, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #79 Morgan Lindsey Tachco comments on Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill Anyone who has had the pleasure of living with me has come home, more than once, to find me on the couch with a bottle of wine, fully immersed in a Billie Holiday record. What can I say? Sometimes darkness needs embracing. And Billie Holiday – Lady Day as she was known – was something else
Lady Day’s voice plumbs the soul’s depths and rises in dismay, beauty, resignation, and ultimately joy. Her words tell the story of a seemingly impossible life of a woman of color and grapple with the consequences of generational and lifelong trauma. They come together to form music that echoes the song of her ancestry and the reality of her present: haunted melodies that tell us what it was to exist as the entirety of herself.
Clearly, I have feelings about Billie Holiday. So what was I to expect from Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at the Circle on the Square theatre? A (yikes) Broadway revue? How does one do justice to such an iconic sound?
My concern dissipated as five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald hit the stage. McDonald’s performance as Lady Day exceeded any expectation. Her first breath takes the air out of the space. The notes that follow replace it and take us along for the ride. We are Lady Day’s guests in the only home she’s really known: the stage of a boozy, smoky club.
McDonald does not ‘channel’ Billie Holiday. Even better, she plays her. She crawls inside Lady Day, playing her as a woman and performer in steadfast honor of an ancestor, using her vocal style and powerful personality as tools to tell her story. McDonald nearly vanishes in the process. In most moments, she is only separate from the character in appearance, and toward the end not even that. With eyes closed they were nearly indistinguishable, a nod to Dialect Coach Deborah Hecht, and I would imagine a fantastic Vocal Coach, however uncredited.
Rather than a linear biography, the script consists of stories immersed in a set at Philadelphia nightclub, Emerson’s Bar and Grill. The stories move as Lady Day wants them to, in and out of the music. Thankfully, she does not hold back. She recalls moving, often violent accounts of the many phases in her short life – multiple arrests, prostitution, abject racism, and extreme drug and alcohol use. Lady does not strictly sing the blues this evening, though – she is a riot. McDonald’s joyful portrayal invites us to see past the poppy vinyl and sentimental biopics, and into the entirety of this person.
Behind Lady Day and her band, ghostly objects and photos of individuals emerge and fade throughout the piece as they’re referenced. This is the only thing that detracts from McDonald’s performance. I imagine the concept is to provide historical reference and information, ultimately comforting the predominantly white Broadway audience.
It’s a shame that the audience isn’t encouraged by playwright Lanie Robertson and director Lonny Price to fully immerse themselves in the story and performance in front of them. Audiences can be trusted to know or have the ability to research this history.
But what I find most disappointing is its museum-like quality. It evokes the feeling of an exhibit, suggesting the audience should lightly peruse the story, swoon for the music, and then collectively put it all behind glass – romanticizing a history that has been overcome. Billie Holiday’s legacy, Audra McDonald’s performance, and the histories from which they emerge belong right in front of each of us, so that we may learn from and be moved by these incredible women performers existing as the entirety of themselves.