Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is, in a lot of ways, about fame and cruelty. Framed as one of Billie Holiday’s later performances at the Philadelphia venue, the play features a three-piece band led by Jimmy Powers who sit at the back of stage and accompany Audra McDonald’s Holiday. Yet it’s Holiday life that stands at the centre of the stage, alone in spotlight, for us to examine and to experience.
What do we talk about when we talk about Audra? Of course it’s a mesmerizing performance. Following after other legends Eartha Kitt and Loretta Devine who’ve played the role, McDonald manipulates her iconic and distinctive voice to sound eerily like Holiday. She wraps herself in Holiday’s songs, colouring every note of ‘God Bless the Child’ and ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’. With biographical plays the danger is a one-note impression, but McDonald shifts into a many-faced Holiday. She swings through gaiety, grief and wrath, as if they were different notes in a melody, testing them out and letting them linger.
Lanie Robertson’s script is a tad predictable, and includes a scattered bullet-point list of Billie Holiday’s biography for those unfamiliar with the icon’s personal life. Some of these details aren’t relevant and seem shoehorned into the script. They undermine the otherwise frank, disquieting and funny monologues about Holiday’s time with Artie Shaw and memories of her great-grandmother. Overall, the trajectory is a predictable downward spiral, as Holiday succumbs to her flowers (a euphemism for heroin) and drinks herself into a stupor.
It’s true Holiday is a deeply tragic figure, and part of that has to do with her relationship to music. McDonald expresses this brilliantly, glancing back at Shelton Becton’s beautifully understated Powers as he plays the first few notes of a song. They linger in the air, and her face is all despair and anguish. The question ‘Was Holiday’s talent undermined by her addiction, or was it the very reason she became an addict?’ comes to the surface. Here her music is both healing and harmful; it’s a drug that satiates but also steals.
We too are thieves. A sense of discomfort looms in watching a woman’s often bleak life reenacted for one’s entertainment (even if entertaining was a main part of the woman’s life). Holiday tells us how much she dislikes performing ‘Strange Fruit’, and yet, in the darkest moment of all, Becton’s Powers plays those haunting first chords. She performs and she struggles for it. It’s oddly voyeuristic, even cruel, and it’s emphasised by a lack of overarching awareness within the production of its own complicity.
McDonald’s Holiday decries the big venues of New York City and say she much prefers to perform in smaller venues like this one, Emerson’s Bar & Grill. And while Christopher Oram’s set transforms the Wyndham’s stage into a bar with audience onstage, this is still undeniably a West End venue. Even with cocktail tables instead of stalls seating, the glittery adornment of the boxes frame McDonald and make her statement utterly incongruous. Why perform a piece like this in a West End theatre, apart from offering the utterly absorbing McDonald to a large crowd?
Yes, Lady Day is worth it to watch another icon, McDonald, sing. She is undeniably spellbinding, but it’s hard to imagine how this play would work with a less talented performer.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is on at Wyndham’s Theatre until 9th September 2017. Click here for more details.