Karole Foreman as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." Photo by Craig Schwartz
Memo to GOP presidential candidate Nikki (“We’re not a racist country. We’ve never been a racist country.”) Haley: You need to see – and hear – “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.”
Lanie Robertson’s play with music, which imagines the legendary but troubled Billie Holiday performing in a South Philly bar late in her career, is quite amazingly more about what Lady Day says than what she sings. During the course of a real-time-seeming hour and a half set, drinking and smoking the while, her composure gradually deteriorates – but not her memory of the cruel treatment she received as a Black woman, even one who was a hailed musical star. Her recollection of these atrocities in all their ugliness can turn a theater stone cold silent.
As it did in moments at Cygnet Theatre, which in association with L.A.’s Ebony Repertory Theatre, is presenting “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.”
Actor/vocalist Karole Foreman is a veteran of this role, having starred in “Lady Day at Emerson’s” four times prior to this staging. Her performance is seamless in what has to be a physically and emotionally grinding part – and at Cygnet, she does two shows on Saturdays during this run yet.
Accompanying her on piano is Damon Carter as Jimmy Powers, friend-in-charge of keeping the set on track and to some extent keeping her upright.
Striking in a white dress and in the latter part of the show with Holiday’s familiar gardenia pinned to her hair, Foreman does not try to reproduce Lady Day vocally, though if you know the jazz great’s catalog, you’ll hear her distinctive phrasing just as it sounded on records.
Early in the going, when rendering “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” or “When a Woman Loves a Man,” Foreman’s Billie is poised at the mic stand, an established pro. As the imaginary evening progresses, her asides and painful stories supersede the musical performances: songs become fits and starts; Jimmy has to cue her at the keyboard to kindly but firmly interrupt the meanderings; trips to a table where the booze waits to be poured and the lighting of cigarettes increase.
Here’s where we return to that memo for Nikki Haley and anyone else who chooses to look the other way on America’s shameful racial history. Robertson’s script pays heed to Holiday’s substance abuse, domestic abuse and legal struggles, but rightly emphasizes the terrible prejudice Billie Holiday endured. One recollection onstage in particular, about touring with Artie Shaw’s band and being denied in a White venue basic access to a restroom, is the saddest and most infuriating, even as Lady Day ends the story with her uproarious act of revenge.
Maybe this doesn’t need saying, either, but when Foreman returns to the microphone to sing “Strange Fruit” (Foreman called that “the first protest song” in an interview she did with me for the San Diego Union-Tribune), it is a chilling, time-just-stops moment.
The heaviness of this show, which was first staged in the ‘80s, does not completely detract from the music. We hear “Easy Living” and “Somebody’s On My Mind,” “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and of course “God Bless the Child.” Foreman and Carter make a wonderful team.
I first saw “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” at ion theatre in 2015, with Cashae Monya starring. The size of ion’s tiny venue at Sixth and Pennsylvania in Hillcrest necessitated ingenuity of staging, and converting the place into a cabaret, complete with little tables and chairs, resulted in a “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” that Robertson probably envisioned from the start.
At Cygnet, where the show is directed by Ebony Rep’s Wren T. Brown, Foreman is close to the audience and she does step down to walk among the front-row theatergoers here and there, but it’s still a conventional performance space, and the cabaret effect is never fully achieved.
Even so, the more people who hear again (or for the first real time) the musical brilliance of Billie Holiday and, more important the tragedies and little triumphs of her life, the better. You could fill 10 SoFi Stadiums with this show and still have so many people who need to know about and hear the unforgettable Lady Day as perhaps she was on some dive-club night before she left the world.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” runs through Feb. 18 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.