Forget the famous nickname for a second. Like only a handful of jazz artists — instrumentalists Miles Davis and John Coltrane come to mind — Billie Holiday’s vocal career had a distinctive arc, leaving the diva’s fans with a blithe and sunny early period of recordings, a forceful and dramatic middle period, and a worldly wise and poignant late period. The meteoric 25-year Lady Day career has stages as identifiable as Beethoven’s groundbreaking music or Shakespeare’s awesome procession of plays.
The legend of Billie Holiday took off almost instantly after her early death in 1959. That legend is easier to capture on film if you want to deliver the full breadth — and the full tragedy — of the story. But Lady Sings the Blues (1972) was a wasted opportunity, totally worthless as a biography, notwithstanding Diana Ross’s Oscar-nominated portrayal. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by playwright Lanie Robertson was a more serious attempt, though the 1986 drama didn’t gain real traction in the theatre world until 2014, when Audra McDonald brought it to Broadway — and subsequently to HBO.
Now it’s here at Queens University, where Hadley Theatre has been transformed into Emerson’s in an Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by Jeremy DeCarlos that runs through Feb. 16. Janeta Jackson not only sings Billie’s songs and wears her signature gardenia, she mingles with the paying customers and engages them as they sit in casual cabaret-style cocktail tables. Chip Decker’s scenic setup also provides for extra stadium seating behind the many cocktail tables, plus a bar at the rear of the hall.
Robertson focused on the most notorious part of Billie’s life, the final days when her deteriorating health and appalling finances sent her on a trajectory toward police custody and her deathbed. When she died of cardiac arrest and liver disease at the age of 44, handcuffed to her hospital bed, there was $7,500 in cash taped to her body and 70 cents in her bank account. It’s already 1959 when we see her at Emerson’s, and costume designer Carrie Cranford has outfitted Jackson in the same sort of satin dress that you’ll find on Billie’s valedictory Columbia album, Lady in Satin, and on the Verve memorial LP set, The Unforgettable Lady Day.
Not a total surprise, since Willis Hickerson, Jr., leading his trio at the keyboard in the role of Jimmy Power, plays Billie on with “Satin Doll.” When Jackson arrives, she mostly sings songs that are associated with Billie — but not necessarily with her latter days. With his choice of songs and with the rambling patter of his script, Robertson contrives to have latter-day Lady Day present an informal retrospective of her life and career, musically emphasizing the early and middle years, leaving space for songs that inspired her and, of course, the songs she wrote and championed.
Among the early songs sprinkled on the Lady Day songlist are “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Foolin’ Myself,” and “Easy Living” from Billie’s swinging early period, recorded in 1935-38 with the likes of Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman and Lester Young. Robertson does something interesting with “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” not only programming it early in Billie’s set but making it emblematic of her heroin habit as she staggers backstage midway through her show.
Jackson arrives onstage slurping a drink, so Billie’s substance abuse is never a secret. It’s the main reason she’s performing in this Philadelphia dive, we quickly learn, for she had lost her license to perform in New York City cabarets a few arrests earlier.
Although we never hear any of the mighty heartbreakers on Billie’s final album, like “I’m a Fool to Want You” or “You’ve Changed,” the mood definitely darkens toward the end. Although lighting designer Evan Kinsley repeatedly flouts the words of the script, which should prompt him to keep the piano player in semi-darkness, he does turn down the houselights and shine a spot on Jackson for the climactic “Strange Fruit,” a searing depiction of a Southern-style lynching that became a Lady Day hallmark. Or as she puts it, one of the songs we came to hear. She doesn’t say it quite that politely.
There are no “I’ve seen the mountaintop” moments in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, so the ending is more pathetic than tragic. Embedding an autobiography into a cabaret performance wasn’t the easiest assignment for Robertson, but his best line, “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married: he was 18, she was 16, and I was three,” flows naturally out of the opening of Billie’s Lady Sings the Blues autobio.
He did his research, you will find, and so have DeCarlos and Jackson. DeCarlos has chosen his musicians well – bassist Peter de Klerk and drummer Tim Scott fill out the trio — and he gets an alert and spontaneous performance from Hickerson where Powers has to speak a few lines here and there, coping with Billie’s spaced-out eccentricities. And what DeCarlos saw from Jackson at auditions, where she arrived with calling cards that included the doo-wop group in Beehive and the lead in Mary Poppins? Bet it wasn’t nearly the same Billie as we’re seeing now.
For there can be no doubting that, if she wasn’t a Lady Day fan when she showed up to audition for DeCarlos, Jackson has certainly immersed herself in the recordings since landing the role. To a Billiephile, it’s obvious that Jackson concentrated most heavily on the Verve recordings of 1948-57, which have snippets of Billie’s spoken introductions, a nice compromise between the juicy early recordings and the raspy final releases. Jackson seems to have avoided or rejected the Emerson’s Bar recording by McDonald — a very wise choice, for Audra not only leans a bit on Billie’s raspiness, she occasionally exaggerates the mannerisms of her last years.
Jackson echoes those mannerisms rather than imitating or caricaturing them, and she is almost as uncanny as McDonald in capturing the timbre of the speaking voice, though she eschews the telltale rasp. On other aspects of the speaking voice, Jackson might move closer to the six-time Tony Award winner, who won her sixth as Lady Day. Slowing down would help Jackson make Lady Day’s aging and physical deterioration more real, and slurring her speech a little more would couple nicely with the effects of the liquor and the junk.
The Jackson vocals are consistently wonderful in her chosen Verve groove, most Billie-like near the end of the evening in “Don’t Explain,” where she almost equals “Strange Fruit” as the highlight. If she puts a little too much mannered mustard on the bridge and at the end of “God Bless the Child,” Holiday’s most-admired original composition, it’s still outstanding — and she has none of the difficulties with the meter that plague the recorded covers by McDonald and Ross.
While the setting at Hadley isn’t as intimate as the HBO special, it’s cozier than the Broadway production was and DeCarlos gives Jackson freedom to mingle with the clientele and roam away from the little stage — which she does with admirable poise. Ladylike, we can say. If you love Lady Day, there’s no need at all to hesitate, and if you’re looking to find out more, look no further.