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The whole experience begins when you enter the performance space, which looks like a club, featuring a bar by the entrance, tables up front, and bleachers that wrap around the stage in a semi-circle. Soon, you hear the almost sour sound of Billie Holiday through actress Janeta Jackson, with distinctive phrasing that sometimes makes you think she's lost her timing (but then you bashfully realize that it was you who didn't understand), and you see her iconic white gown sparkling in the spotlight. You're transported to 1959, and you're at one of the last concerts that Billie Holiday will ever give before her untimely death of the same year.
Once Jackson begins to sing, it's hard to remember that you're not actually at South Philadelphia's Emerson's Bar & Grill, but in fact in the Hadley Theater of Queen's University, which is held in a private grade-school building. With their truly excellent production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill (directed by Jeremy DeCarlos), Actor's Theatre of Charlotte transported and transcended.
Lady Day is noticeably fragile. Jackson was always a little hunched forward, with one arm bent a little more than the other, trembling, as if it had to be engaged to keep her from falling over. The sources of this fragility are learned throughout the show as Lady Day rambles in monologue between songs, sometimes from the stage and sometimes while roaming through the audience. Billie's supported by her pianist and keeper, Jimmy Powers (Willis Hickerson, Jr.), as well as a bassist (Peter de Klerk) and drummer (Tim Scott), who all try to keep her on track through cues and nudging looks.
In short, Lady Day is fragile because she's been beaten down repeatedly. She brushes over childhood traumas such as waking up in the dead arms of her great-grandmother. "That was the worst thing that's ever happened to me," she says, "that and being raped when I was 10." When she was a young teen, her mother wanted her to get a job as a maid, but Billie soon realized (even if her mother didn't) that the job was actually for a prostitute; she joked about the amount of blood she lost during those days.
Recurring memories of racism are at the forefront of these monologues. She remembers her first tours with the likes of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw when she was the only black member. Holiday was repeatedly denied hotel rooms, a seat in the dining room of white restaurants, and access to a restroom. She remembers one particular moment while on tour with Shaw's band, when she was forced to eat dinner in the kitchen of a restaurant. After inquiring about the restroom several times, the restaurant manager told her that "they didn't want her in this restaurant anyway" and that maybe she just ought to "sit on it," at which point Billie said she "let loose" all over the manager's shoes. Billie laughed and said that was both the high and low point of the tour.
Yet, even in stories of outright degradation such as this, Billie – or Jackson as Billie – does not appear resentful. Along with stories of the recurring humiliation and harassment by white society, Billie, too, recognizes the kind and generous moments of others. She talks about how the band would always stick by her – if she had to eat in the kitchen, so would they. Of Artie Shaw's band, she said, "they were pals."
Like her stories, her songs varied in tone from the upbeat and goofy "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)," to the haunting "Strange Fruit." Jackson was convincing in every single word, whether spoken or sung, and her performance was accentuated by colorful lighting (by Evan Kinsley), which helped the audience transition through these changing moods. Particularly poignant was a rendition of "God Bless the Child," which, as Jackson explained, was written after Billie was denied money by her late mother. By that time, Lady Day was already under the influence of heroin and other drugs, and her mother did not want to support the habit; her little girl was gone, her mother said.
Sadly, her mother was right. The drug-use eventually took her daughter at the age of 44. In this show, Billie's substance abuse is evident: Jackson constantly moved back and forth from the piano to take a swig of alcohol, and at one moment left the stage in a fury to "see the doctor," returning with one long white glove rolled down to her wrist, exposing her forearm. Even from the beginning, Lady Day is clearly several sheets to the wind.
"To live is to suffer" and Lady Day may have been the incarnation of that phrase. At the same time, as this show and Jackson's portrayal emphasized, her suffering was transformed to something transcendent, that being her music. I couldn't help but wonder what it was like to really be in the room with her. I often wonder that of audiences present during the times of people like Billie and Ella and Coltrane. I look back now and wonder, for those who were lucky enough to bear witness, did they know how lucky they were?
Janeta Jackson's Lady Day and the whole production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill allowed those of us who wonder what it was like to come as close as possible to knowing. These performers, too, transcended.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill continues through Sunday, February 16. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.