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A Musical Portrait of Billie Holiday
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”

By Dave Cooper

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, image courtesy of Black Theatre Troupe

With a bittersweet intensity, the premature loss of American jazz and blues legend Billie Holiday continues to resonate throughout the music world. Singer and songwriter Holiday, who died at the age of 44, was a meteoric presence in her time. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, written by Lanie Robertson, is a wonderful musical portrait of this revered artist, as presented by The Black Theater Troupe.

Saxophonist Lester Young fondly christened Billie Holiday "Lady Day." Under the direction of Ed Smith, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is a riveting, monologue style, single scene presentation. Phoenix based actress Yolanda London consumes the role and image of Billie Holiday throughout this tightly chronicled journey through Lady Day's life and career.

London performs impressive versions of “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” and other classic Billie Holiday tunes. London is backed by the expert musical accompaniment of Arizona musicians Lawrence O. Dabney (piano), Johnny Sanchez (bass) and Christopher Simmons (drums) who capture the sensation and texture of a live Billie Holiday experience. The overall effect lends poignant authenticity and soul to Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.

Playwright Lanie Robertson witnessed one of Billie Holiday’s final shows in the late 1950’s and was inspired to recapture that experience. An off-Broadway production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill premiered in 1986. Since then, it has been performed numerous times. Black Theater Troupe Executive Director David Hemphill says: "Robertson's play is one of my favorite treatments of Billie Holiday’s story.” The Black Theatre Troupe production honors the enduring life and rich legacy of Holiday.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill portrays the beloved and revered Holiday as a highly successful entertainer. That is juxtaposed with a portrait of her life as one of dissonance and challenge. After being born to unmarried teenage parents, Holiday was exposed to a harsh life on the streets of Baltimore. She frequently skipped school, got into mischief and eventually scrubbed floors and ran errands in a brothel.

Her songs seem to tell us that she found solace, purpose, and great pleasure in music, if not in love. With no formal training, Holiday's voice was rough and limited, which lent to her unique and engaging sound. She began appearing in Harlem jazz clubs when record producer John Hammond discovered the young, new sensation at age 18. Soon she was playing with some of the premier jazz musicians in America, emerging as a singular performer of that era to this day.

The play transports us through the course of Holiday’s career to March of 1959. Along the way, we see Holiday's life take a tragic wrong turn, as she yearns for her once-prominent status as a treasured jazz diva. Lady Day eventually settles into a sleazy Philadelphia bar where she entertains before scant gatherings of patrons. She died tragically a few months later on July 17, 1959.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill runs May 13 through 22. Evening and matinee performances are at the Playhouse on the Park, located on the ground floor of The Viad Tower at 1850 N. Central Avenue in Phoenix. For tickets, show times and information about the work of the Black Theater Troupe go to www.blacktheatretroupe.org