Theater Review: LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL (Ebony Rep)

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by Tony Frankel on February 10, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles


Thanks to Lanie Robertson’s bedrock-basic script, Wren T. Brown’s dedicated staging, Karole Foreman’s extraordinarily vulnerable performance, and Stephan Terry’s elegant piano playing, Ebony Rep’s 90-minute revival of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill pays full homage to Billie Holiday’s heroism and heartbreak.

Unlike her famous “God Bless the Child,” Lady Day never did get “her own.” But she put that loss, unforgettably, into what she called “a blues feeling with a jazz beat.” You don’t hear this music — you shoot it up.

Robertson won’t let us forget the price Billie paid to sing the blues. Uncured by her cold turkey in jail, foul-mouthed and ripe for revenge, Billie slowly frazzles until she breaks loose to get a fix and return, floating on a cloud of analgesia. Along the way she remembers hard and good times: Learning to croon in a Baltimore bordello by playing scratchy recordings of Bessie Smith; turning hophead with her first husband Sonny Monroe; and the vicious bigotry endured on Southern tours (including a searing anecdote of her revenge against the white sadist who wouldn’t let her piss in her segregated nightclub).

Though not replicating Billie’s voice as Audra McDonald recently did on Broadway, Foreman’s fragile, little-girl vocals contain that iconic tender and vulnerable warble. The tremulous delicacy perfectly conveys Billie Holiday’s full-throated anguish: “Easy Livin'” undulates on a wave of smooth sorrow, while her “Don’t Explain” goes beneath tears. Foreman doesn’t mumble and slur her words to depict Billie’s tailspin, as she’s not going for an impersonation; rather, we get a force of emotion which explicates how Billie’s trevails in life fed her unique style. It’s a glorious performance.

Mirroring the typically rocky, often unfinished, concerts that Holiday choked out before her drug demise, Robertson’s script also drops her into a heroin hell. Foreman pours that breakdown into the one force that can contain it — the songs. Where “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” sung early on, seems dangerously animated after Billie shoots smack (her “moonlight”), “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness If I Do” takes on a special defiance.

A palpable pillar of patience, the gifted instrumentalist, Mr. Terry, is forlornly withdrawn, staring in the shadow as the falling star beside him gutters out. He looks as helpless as the real Jimmy must have felt, watching Billie tear away a bit more life each night. As tragic as that is — you won’t want this show to end.

photos by Craig Schwartz

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Ebony Repertory Theatre
Nate Holden Performing Arts Center
4718 West Washington Boulevard (between La Brea and Crenshaw)
ends on March 1, 2020
for tickets, call 323.964.9766 or visit Ebony Rep

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