As time marches on, it’s hard to remember every complex detail about another person’s life. In the case of Billie Holiday, I never knew that much, to begin with. That’s why I was so excited to see a new production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, recently presented by Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta, GA. Never having seen any of the New York productions or the PBS video recording of Audra McDonald as the iconic singer, the play was a completely fresh experience for me.
The play falls in line with a number of other plays with music that chronicle the life, or a moment in the life, of legendary women. Always, Patsy Cline captures the audience in a similar way, allowing a talented singing actress to offer a portraiture through acting and vocal styling. Flipside: The Patti Page Story does this, too, and I’d even argue that Little Voice is appealing largely for the same reason, although that script is fully aware of its own theatrical devices. Billie Holiday has a voice that is instantly recognizable, so hearing an actress emulate her signature tone and phrasing does give the audience a sense that they are getting a glimpse of the real thing. Terry Burrell, the actress who played Holiday in the production I saw, painted her voice with all the right strokes, so reminiscent that it made me curious to hear what the actresses usual voice really sounds like.
The music itself bears a huge part of the storytelling burden in Lady Day, as well. Where Always, Patsy Cline relies on a jukebox full of well-known singles, this show dives deeper into the jazz catalog, using a number of songs I’d never heard before. Jazz music is one of those elusive genres that I respect and enjoy, but have no through education about. Of course, using music to tell the story of a legendary singer seems obvious, but here, it’s arguably essential. Not that her complicated life isn’t enough to draw from, but a certain transcendence occurred when Ms. Burrell began to sing songs like, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and “Easy Livin,” bridging a gap in time that just isn’t there in similar non-musical plays, such as Looped.
Lady Day has a gracious but unapologetic script, with dialogue that mirrors the poetry of the song lyrics. The banter between the singer and her accompanist-cum-lover is somehow both familiar and unexpected. Head-on attempts at addressing racism and sexism in the music industry within the dialogue occasionally rise out of nowhere, making the audience sit up and take note with uncomfortable self-awareness. But there are just as many moments that make the entire room feel like a collective of old friends, gathered once more to see their friend sing a few old favorites.