She was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, 1915, though some say her birth certificate reads Elinore Harris.
Her professional name was Billie Holiday, a combination of silent movie actress Billie Dove and her father, Clarence Holiday (even though his last name is often listed as Halliday), but it was music partner Lester Young who nicknamed her Lady Day. It would be later in the early forties due to a stint of recording under a different label while contracted to another that she would use the nickname professionally. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill now playing at Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre is a musical play of what happened the night Billie Holiday returned to Philadelphia in 1959 to sing in a small night club. It was just four months before her death.
According to the informative notes of the Phoenix Theatre’s playbill, the building is still there. The place is abandoned, but it remains standing, boarded up on the corner of Fiftieth and Bainbridge Streets. The events as they occur in writer Lanie Robertson’s play are imagined – it’s a ninety minute, real-time, cabaret performance – but everything spoken by Billie Holiday between the songs happened, and they’re tragic beyond comprehension.
The show first opened in Atlanta in 1986 and continued to be a regional favorite for some time. It even ran at the valley’s Black Theatre Troupe some years ago, but it was the recent Tony award-winning Broadway revival that breathed new life and interest into the musical play. And now it’s back in the valley. Having never seen the previous valley production, a comparison is difficult, but even though both versions cast the same leading lady, it’s doubtful whether that older presentation could surpass the new; Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill as presented at the Hormel Theatre under Pasha Yamotahari’s direction is nothing short of dazzling, and it has everything to do with its leading lady, Yolanda London.
The first thing that impresses is Joel Birch’s set design; he’s redesigned the intimacy of the smaller Hormel Theatre to accommodate the needs of the production. Entering the theatre is like walking into a late evening night club, probably around midnight, where a stage with a small, extended runway juts out into the audience, surrounded by round, night club tables. The majority will sit in the theatre’s bleacher-styled stadium seating, but those close to the stage seated either side of the extended platform have the opportunity of appearing as though they’re extras on set and part of the show. With Daniel Davisson’s colorful and appropriate club-like lighting design and a three-piece band – drums, paino and bass – already playing as you take your seat, the illusion is complete; you’ve just entered Emerson’s Bar & Grill, and headlining tonight is the dynamic Billie Holiday.
The ninety minute production plays out like a genuine, performance. Billie Holiday (Yolanda London) enters and immediately commands the mic, and if there’s one thing clear above all else, she loves to sing. The way Yolanda curls her voice around those vowels and twists and turns her mouth with the phrasing of the lyrics, the squint of the nose and the smile of constant delight as she looks directly into her audience, the voice we hear is the actor’s but the style is all Billie. Yolanda may appear more curvy than Billie Holiday would have done during those final months of her tragic life, and certainly healthier in the face, but the illusion remains. Keep in mind, this is no tribute performance and certainly no impersonation; this is a play with a plot and needs an actor who can sing, not a singer who can act. Yolanda can certainly sing, but she’s an exceptional actor.
The first two back to back songs draw you in. Billie Holiday is in her element. As we later learn, all she ever wanted was a home, a place to cook, some children and a small night-club where she could sing to her friends. It would all be denied, but at least for a short while, that night in 1959, she had a stage at Emerson’s and an adoring, intimate crowd she could call her friends, and she could sing. But as the evening progressed came the baggage.
While the singing and the backing three-piece band lead by pianist Geibral Elisha are undeniably sublime, Robertson’s play supporting the often horrific stories Billie tells leading towards a mounting anger falters and is not without its flaws. The jazz performer’s tales of her unbelievably tragic existence are certainly fascinating – to use that expression, without walking a mile in her shoes we can’t even begin to imagine what her experiences were like – but hearing them, one after another as her personal condition deteriorates through drinking on stage, takes its toll and sometimes grinds a moment to an uncomfortable halt. As with the Judy Garland musical play End of the Rainbow presented last year on the same Hormel Theatre stage, there’s no enjoyment to be had witnessing a talent disintegrate before you.
Some of those stories are funny, particularly when the horror is presented in a way that even Billie doesn’t altogether acknowledge – mentioning that she was raped at ten is expressed more as a passing comment than a key moment – but the stories of her arrest, the details of her imprisonment and the horrors of what followed, including the denial of work and Billie’s sudden moment of explosive anger when telling of these events are what will stun an audience into an awkward silence. Noticing the track marks of drug abuse on her arm after neglecting to roll back her long sleeved fingerless glove is shocking, particularly as she’s oblivious to what we can see.
But it’s in the songs and her singing where Billie finds her deliverance, and so does the play. They’re not just her escape, they’re her recovery. The pain is in the telling of her life – from the day she was born, all cards were clearly stacked against her – but her joy is in the singing until, as illustrated symbolically in the closing moments, she can sing no more. It’s not in the show, but even at the moment of death she was hounded. When she was rushed into a New York hospital, the authorities raided her room; they even arrested and handcuffed her for drug possession as she lay dying.
See the show to witness what Phoenix Theatre and director Yamotahari have done with Robertson’s script, and see it to enjoy the music and the singing, but most of all, see it to savor every moment of Yolanda London. On the strength of this performance alone, Yolanda is now officially the jewel in the crown atop of the valley’s already considerably large pool of professional talent; hands down.
Pictures courtesy of Phoenix Theatre
For tickets and more information, CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre’s official website.