Jazz phenom Billie Holiday’s influential imprint on American music coupled with her humorous, unsettling and resilient testimony as an African-American woman facing incredible adversity while consumed with addiction fuels the magnetism of Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play-with-music Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
Excellently presented by the Human Race Theatre Company at the Loft Theatre and set in 1959 Philadelphia, Lady Day brings forth the heartache and joys of Holiday’s career, spoken four months before her death at age 44, with bold, blunt and naughty purpose. Structurally, it’s easy to pigeonhole this play as far-fetched, especially when you consider the likelihood of any prominent celebrity in the 1950s sharing such personal, tragic details of their lives with relative abandon, including accounts of abuse, racism and imprisonment. But Holiday loved to sing, and truly loved her audience in return, so it’s not unsurprising that she would be a completely open book, especially in her drunken, drug-addicted haze. With assistance from her concerned, supportive accompanist Jimmy Powers (Keigo Hirakawa), Holiday (an absolutely luminous Tanesha Gary) transforms into a compelling storyteller, particularly and vividly reflecting on touring the segregated South with bandleader Artie Shaw and being denied access to a restroom.
Beautifully costumed in a gleaming white gown with matching gloves by David M. Covach, Gary, a terrific Caroline Thibodeaux in the Human Race’s 2011 production of Caroline, or Change, smoothly executes Holiday’s journey with colorful sting (director Scott Stoney astutely ensures her repartee is flavorful yet impactful) and stellar vocals. She notably resists providing a full-throttle impersonation of Holiday akin to Audra McDonald’s performance in the 2014 Broadway revival, but her work is effective nonetheless in terms of paying homage to the spirit of Holiday’s definitive magic. Backed by an exemplary jazz trio consisting of knockout keyboardist Hirakawa, percussionist/music director Deron B. Bell Sr., and bassist Eddie Brookshire, her many standout renditions include the swinging groove of What a Little Moonlight Can Do (impeccably bolstered by Hirakawa) and breezy Easy Livin,’ in addition to her outstanding phrasing within God Bless the Child and her powerfully descriptive, chill-inducing Strange Fruit. All of these tuneful moments and more are accented by the wonderfully intimate ambience established in the work of scenic designer Scott J. Kimmins, lighting designer John Rensel and sound designer Jay Brunner. In fact, the final seconds eerily transition into a gorgeously surreal dreamscape courtesy of Rensel.
Holiday left this world far too soon, but her iconic legacy unquestionably inspired an array of brilliant vocalists such as Diana Ross, Ledisi and Amy Winehouse. Her life was not in vain and her story deserves your attention.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill continues through Sept. 29 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. The production is performed in 75 minutes without intermission. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; and 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Tickets: $19.50-$37. There are also select side-area seats available for $16 and $28 at all performances. In addition, all adult priced tickets are discounted at 50 percent for students with proof of a student I.D. Stage seating (five tables intended for couples) is also available for $27.50-$52. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit humanracetheatre.org or ticketcenterstage.com.
FYI: The Human Race Theatre Company is partnering with the Neon Movies for the Women of Influence in the Movies Series. On Monday, Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m., the Neon will screen a double bill of New Orleans, in which a gambling hall owner entertains his patrons with hot jazz by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, and the newly restored short film Symphony in Black, in which Billie Holiday makes her screen debut as Duke Ellington plays his symphonic jazz piece. Tickets are $8 each or $30 for a series pass, available at neonmovies.com.