SALT LAKE CITY — When I think of Billie Holiday, I think of black and white album covers, gardenias, and her incredibly distinctive and often imitated voice. Pygmalion Productions’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill presents Holiday in full color and shows the very real and complicated woman behind that iconic voice. Lanie Robertson’s script takes place near the end of Holiday’s career and is set in 1959 Philadelphia. The audience of the play is intended to be the crowd at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, so seating is cabaret style: round tables set up to resemble a speak-easy or slightly seedy club venue with votive candles and a light haze providing the appropriate ambiance. There was a small cash bar, too, which provides some fun authenticity to the experience, but did not steal attention from the small stage and the silver vintage microphone atop it. The simplicity of the set in conjunction with the seating created a wonderful sense of anticipation because I knew the piano off to one side and the microphone would be used for their actual purposes. It was also incredibly intimate, and I appreciated that change of pace from the typical theatre patron experience.
The story starts with a snatch of overheard conversation, incomprehensible but sharp. The lights come up and the audience is welcomed by Jimmy Powers (Laikwan Waigwa-Stone). He briefly introduces Billie Holiday, and then takes his seat at the piano. He plays an intro, and Holiday does not appear. Immediately, the relationship between Jimmy and Billie is clear. He is her caregiver, her manager, her connection to reality. Waigwa-Stone conveyed a quiet resignation to loss—his concern and fear clear from the moment he speaks. This is a man long-suffering from the weight of his job. Waigwa-Stone’s quiet strength anchors the vivid, fluid nature of the story and provides a wonderful counterpoint to the magnetic, soulful performance of Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin as the iconic “Lady Day.”
Before seeing this play, I had no idea that Holiday had performed past the height of her fame during the Big-Band era or that the raw emotion in her songs stemmed from living the pain and joy in real life. Part bio-poem, part musical journey Robertson’s script uses this late struggle for a career to explore not only Holiday’s life, but also to take a critical look at race relations before the Civil-Rights era. As the piece unfolds, Holiday is revealed as so much more than a voice. She weaves Jazz history and personal anecdotes into a tapestry of rich personal narrative, sharing terrifyingly personal and brutal facts without blinking an eye. Moving among the audience as she speaks, she is course, funny, and completely mesmerizing. It is left up to Jimmy to keep Billie on track, with a meaningful or sharp plunk of piano keys as he starts a song and brings her back to the stage to fulfill their “gig” contract. I could see the weariness in Billie as she sings the songs she is best known for, but she is not bitter. Rather, she has an almost romanticized admiration for the past, fully accepting that without it, she wouldn’t be what she is. Yet these experiences have taken their toll. Drugs, drink, brutal men and segregationist laws, and even prison have all left their mark on Billie’s voice and memory. As the show progresses, some battles become more apparent and tragic, but seeing this just makes the whole experience that much more human.
Darby-Duffin is charismatic, layered, brutally honest, and transitions between monologue, reminiscence, and powerhouse renditions of Holiday’s most famous tracks. Her mimicry of Holiday’s vocal style is impressive and feels authentic to the actress. The actress’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” is so mournful and expressive that I had shivers down my spine as well as tears in my eyes. Director Teresa Sanderson’s light touch was clear, just enough structure to keep a strong pace to the story. Every time Billie mounted the stairs to return to the microphone you can see the trial of it, that she simultaneously finds release and imprisonment in performing. Sanderson did not burden her actors with extraneous movement or props, letting the script and the actors do the work. Jesse Portillo’s lighting accented the performances flawlessly, providing moody ambiance and highlighting Darby-Duffin’s musical performances with beautiful simplicity. Mikal Troy Klee’s sound design effectively supports the authenticity of the performance. There was some language and implied drug use, but again, nothing forced or excessive given the story. At the end of 90 minutes, Billie Holiday faded away, but her still voice resonated.