In Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, one evening’s concert captures the downward spiral of an American musical icon. Alexandria J. Henderson’s performance puts the singer’s highs and lows on display; it’s just as beautiful to watch as it is heartbreaking. Lady Day runs through November 27 in downtown Olympia.
If I should take a notion / To jump into the ocean
Ain’t nobody’s business / If I do
By the time 1959 rolled around, Billie Holiday’s life and career — enormous talent and renown, tempered by betrayals, racism, and drug abuse — had taken a toll on her.
As playwright Lanie Robertson imagines it, when Holiday takes the stage at a familiar bar in her hometown, just a few months before her death at age 44, her inhibitions are already as low as her spirits will drift over the course of the night. Striking up a largely one-sided conversation with her audience, whom she draws in as friends and confidants, the singer reminisces about decades past and legal troubles present, pulls heavily from the bottle, basks in the joy of performance, and grows increasingly unhinged.
Lyrically, much of Holiday’s vast catalog — most of which she did not write and may not have chosen for herself — are largely generic, forgettable love songs of the era. But the singer behind them is much more interesting. And the standouts among her many recordings are, in my view, the ones where she pulls away from the generic verses and polite tunes and into a rawness that can be downright haunting.
The musical selections central to Robertson’s 1986 play, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, lean nicely toward those weightier songs. Here, staples like “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain” — both of which Holiday wrote or co-wrote — are standouts musically while providing in-roads to biographical bits, as the singer tells the stories behind them. The selections also give a nod to Bessie Smith (her musical predecessor and “Empress of the Blues”) with two well-placed songs about doing your own thing: “Gimme a Pig Foot” (which sticks out stylistically but is very enjoyable musically) and the above-quoted “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness” (which could sum up Holiday’s attitudes on the public eye and the courts at that point in her life).
Unquestionably, “Strange Fruit” — inspired by a vivid picture of lynching in the South — is Holiday’s heaviest song; haunting no matter where or when it’s performed, it was both uncharacteristic of her stylistically and arguably sealed her legacy among the all-time greats. And it’s here that I quibble with the show order a bit. The song is most potent when it’s given a moment to build, but here it arises abruptly after the biggest laugh-line in the show — Billie’s triumph, an act of comedic and perfectly proportionate revenge on a control-hungry racist White lady, which Billie described as both the low point and the high point of the tour. From there to the wallop of “Strange Fruit” follows thematically (southern racism); but from the high point of the story to there, it’s a jarring shift. I’m willing to allow that that’s the point; and it goes into an interlude that forces the audience to sit with that sickening picture.
* * *
In Harlequin’s staging of Lady Day, Alexandria J. Henderson stars in the title role. Henderson is well-known among musical theatre-goers in Seattle and the South Sound; among her many other roles (including one at Harlequin), she’s won a Gregory Award for her performance in Dreamgirls with Village Theatre, and the following year co-hosted the big awards show with Jimmy Shields, who directs her here in Lady Day. As a performer, Henderson has no trouble commanding a stage. But with her (literal) beauty queen background, she had seemed to me a more likely fit among the gowns and glitz of Dreamgirls than as a worn-down Holiday deep into her downward spiral.
Her performance here quickly cleared that up. From the moment she stepped out from the backstage curtain, Henderson’s Lady Day commanded the stage with that casual ease that only the greats seem to pull off.
Henderson has the weighty task of bringing both the regal and the weary of Holiday to the stage — and she succeeds mightily. Her vocals are rich and right for the role, without being mimicky; Henderson has a tremendous voice of her own, and does well to maintain that while evoking a strong sense of Holiday. She banters easily with the crowd about badly dressed undercover agents pursuing her (must have “government resolutions against colored socks”), and just as easily ruminates on unpleasantness (childhood, relationships). She’s vulnerable — first with her openness, and then with her waning consciousness.
Henderson spends nearly the whole show on stage, supported well by a trio of musicians: Addison Daniels as Jimmy Powers on piano (the only one given a name, though Holiday often calls him her ex’s name as she gets further and drunker into the night); Lamar Lofton on bass; and Maria Wulf on drums.
On recordings of Holiday’s songs, often the instrumentals swirl up. Here, the band never overpowers her; they’re accompanists, and good ones, not caught up in their own egos even in character. And truth be told, at this point in Holiday’s career, the band is probably sick of her shit before the show even starts.
In this production the focus is very much on Holiday, and not on the atmosphere. That makes for a much different show than the dark, intimate ArtsWest version I saw in 2018, where Felicia Loud as Holiday invited us into a very real-feeling smoky bar, audience within eye contact, and drinks in hands. (Like ArtsWest did with Lady Day and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Harlequin also has Lady Day in a rotating repertory, but with two shows — Tenderly, about Rosemary Clooney, and Dael Orlandersmith’s In the Flood; see NWT’s review here. It’s a configuration that works well.) Here, the audience is removed. It’s looking down from raked seats, taking her in, judging what they see. It’s a complex portrait.
When Henderson-as-Holiday arrives at “Don’t Explain,” it’s mournful but with a prescient clarity. It feels like it’s just about the end. And it is.
Lady Day is often called a “play with music,” but that categorization sells it short. Lady Day is a layered piece; it’s a biography told through a concert, her performance itself illustrating the singer’s downward spiral. Henderson’s performance puts Holiday’s highs and lows on display. It’s just as beautiful to watch as it is heartbreaking.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill runs through 11/27 at the State Theater in downtown Olympia. Tickets $42, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom near the entrance to house left. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility: two pay-what-you-choose performances (11/14 and 11/16), available two hours before showtime (info here); half-price rush tickets available to all for all shows, 30 minutes before showtime, if any unsold seats remain (info here); industry and other discounts (info here).
COVID info: All attendees must be vaccinated, and provide proof with photo ID at the door; see policies here. Masks are required at all times, and no food or drinks in the theatre. **Note: This was my first foray back into live indoor theatre. I sat off to the side, away from most people, and felt comfortable in this arrangement.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.