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New York City Theater

"Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill"
Circle in the Square Theater

At first you think, “Here’s Audra McDonald” as the star threads her way through nightclub tables on her way to the small stage at one end of Circle in the Square Theater. Then it’s “Here’s Billie Holiday,” as McDonald brilliantly transforms herself from five-time Tony winner to troubled jazz and blues singer.

We forget what it was like for blacks in this country. We forget the lynchings, the separate (or no) bathrooms, the ever-present reminders of slavery. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” Lanie Roberston’s expository memoir, is a familiar yet absorbing work about how a woman of courage and persistence survives segregation and humiliation, only to be defeated by personal demons. In two ways, it’s a tale of waste, as in getting wasted by drugs and alcohol, as well as the waste of a remarkable talent.

The scene is a two-bit Philadelphia nightclub in March 1959, just months before Holiday dies of cirrhosis and heart failure at age 44. “I love to sing,” she says in her smashing strapless gown, her diamond earrings swinging with the music. “Singin’ is livin’ to me. But they won’t let me.”

They won’t in New York because Holiday, as a former prisoner, lacks a cabaret card. Her drug addiction is made plain when, after a break, she re-enters with one long white glove pushed down, showing needle marks. Through it all, she’s defiant, reminiscing about the husband who started her on heroin; her beloved mother, the “Duchess”; the white musicians who protected her; the black ones who influenced her.

And the songs, the smoky voice, the passion, the elongated vowels, the moments of forgetfulness. “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “When a Woman Loves a Man” and, of course, “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” (“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”).

It’s not all sorrows. In an extended comic riff, Holiday tells of revenge on a snotty maitre d’ who wouldn’t let her use the bathroom. Sardonic humor runs throughout, as she journeys from smiles and charm to losing her bearings and her balance.

Vulnerable yet tough, McDonald is remarkable, depicting Lady Day’s bravery as well as her fears, her way with a song superbly intact. Ambling about the stage, drinking a tumblerful of booze, schmoozing with the customers, introducing us to her Chihuahua, McDonald and Holiday fuse into a woman whose control slips.

For Holiday’s downhill slide, McDonald’s stance becomes looser, her voice huskier, her eyes more glazed. Images of the past are reminders of the terrors lurking beneath the surface, ending in a truly frightening and pitiful harbinger of fate for someone whose blazing public life will soon be extinguished.

--David A. Rosenberg
April 21, 2014

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