A Sublime Evening with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Though most area theaters are still firmly closed for indoor productions, some smaller venues around South Florida have already opened their doors, with a few notable precautions in place. Each pod of audience members at the Lake Worth Playhouse’s current production of Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill by Laine Robin, playing there until this May 16th, were seated at a healthy social distance from all others and instructed to wear their masks throughout the performance. 

I still wouldn’t call the evening entirely risk-free, but the fact that by now many of us have gotten our vaccines means that we’re going to have to resume our usual habits eventually. So if you’re already comfortable enough to brave the great indoors for theatre’s sake, now’s as good a time as any to do it, because this play-with-music packs a powerful punch.

Directed by veteran South Florida actress Karen Stephens, the show takes place at one of the last live performances given by jazz legend Billie Holiday, who is also sometimes known by the nickname “Lady Day.” Four months before Holiday’s death of cirrhosis at age 44, her career and reputation had long been seriously marred by her drug and alcohol problems and even a prison sentence. 

Yet, at least as portrayed by actress Pauline Hutchinson, Holiday still has plenty of vocal talent and quite a bit of charm, despite the fact that she is obviously intoxicated from the outset. Throughout the play, we see her pouring herself more and more liquor from the titular bar, become increasingly unfiltered as she does. 

Pauline Hutchinson as Billie Holiday

But Holiday’s story is in no way a simple tale of a superstar who took the party life too far. In the candid monologues she delivers between songs, we learn quite a bit about the tortured life that led her to seek refuge in substances. 

Born Eleanora Fagan in 1915, Billie Holiday was raised by a struggling single mother and suffered several serious traumas during her formative years, though I’ll leave it to the script to enumerate the shocking specifics. 

Her superb singing voice serves as a way out of working at a whorehouse, but even her eventual mainstream success cannot fully protect her from the spectre of her past— or the spectre of racism.

Though times have certainly changed since segregation was still the order of the day, many of the burdens that beset Holiday as a black woman in a white mans’ world still resonate deeply today. Billie’s performance of her famous protest song “Strange Fruit,” which describes a lynching, brings to mind several modern murders, and Holiday’s recounting of her father’s death after his blackness prevented him from finding adequate medical care also felt like a poignant reminder of the outsized impact COVID-19 has had on communities and individuals of color.

Though there’s no denying its weighty themes, Lady Day isn’t all gloom and doom; the songs make for refreshing breaks from the heavier material. There’s also plenty of humor to be found in some of Billie’s lighter anecdotes and in the interaction between her and her piano player Jimmy Powers, played by Elijah Taj Gee.

Elijah Taj Gee as Jimmy Powers

Though he was otherwise quite charismatic in his comparatively small role, Gee’s keyboarding is not quite as awe striking as Hutchinson’s singing, though this was only really noticeable during his solos. Her deep heartfelt vocals, though, seem to capture something of the spirit of Billie’s own, and in doing so evokes the true tragedy of what was lost as the world destroyed her. 

Elijah Taj Gee as Jimmy Powers

But it’s particularly ironic that the Billie of Lady Day chooses to wear an all-white gown on this fated night when her prevailing attitude towards whiteness seems to be one of understandable bitterness. Though she looks quite attractive in its stunning silk and some elegant white gloves, the look is not complete until, halfway through the play, she puts a gardenia in her hair, something that had been a signature of the real Billie throughout her career. But in the end, neither the beauty of her voice nor her pristine appearance can begin to cover up for the broken soul that lurks underneath. And, to borrow an insight from this amazing slam poem, not even the scent of gardenias could mask the sickening stench of her slow decay.

Pauline Hutchinson as Billie Holiday

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