One night last week, I spent a nerve-wracking evening in the Basement, watching Billie Holiday break down. What were YOU doing?
What It Is
It’s a handful of a title. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is a 1986 one-act play by Lanie Robertson about a fictional 1959 Billie Holiday nightclub performance. Well, it’s not so much about a performance, so much as it is the performance. At this point (and in the last month of her life) Billie’s a full-on heroin addict, alcoholic, and tortured by upsetting memories of betrayals, racist mistreatment, poverty, desperate times, and the desperate measures they inspired.
Accompanied by the only other human character in the show, Jimmy Powers, Billie alternately sings, chats, rages, and drinks. It’s a seriously challenging role–you’ve got to sing a ton, but sing like a really talented person whose voice isn’t anything close to what it was and whose mental state is ragged.
By the end, audience members will have anxiety stomachaches, convinced that this tragic woman is actually going to fall over right in front of you. Into your lap, if you’re seeing it in as tiny a setting as the Basement, which I heartily recommend.
Where It Is
TheatreLAB‘s venue, The Basement, is on the northeast corner (or under the corner) of 3rd and Broad Streets downtown. They’ve set up a little nightclub inside, from behind which Katrinah Carol Lewis emerges in a white gown, drink in hand, and totters into the spotlight. You are close enough to see the tears in her eyes, and there are tears in her eyes. You can see her mouth twitch with disgust and then soften with affection when she talks about her mother–“the Duchess”–and her first husband, Sonny. The two have both taken care of and betrayed Billie during her troubled life, which further tightens your stomach as you realize all your problems are pretty whatever.
Such an intimate setting allows for things to stay subtle. There’s no Broadway projection necessary, and Lewis’s trembles can remain realistic.
Who’s behind it
TheatreLAB is into pushing the envelope and testing your limits (and ours too) for productions that don’t take the easy way out. Lady Day has received criticism for being heavy-handed in its writing, so it takes a light touch to make it cause just the right kind of stomachache to just the right degree.
Why do we do this to ourselves!?!? I have got to see something uplifting sometime soon, or I will tumble willingly into a deep pit of despair! Guys, we used Billie Holiday horribly, and it’s a crying shame.
Katrinah Carol Lewis settled into the role after a couple of numbers, and by the midway point, she was nail-bitingly realistic. I had to go look at photos of Billie Holiday afterwards to remember what she looked like. The dog playing Billie’s beloved pet “Pepi,” stole the show for a few minutes with its tongue nervously sticking out–maybe it was unintentional, but it helped to dispel the tension and reminded you that Billie could have a lighter side.
Thinking about how intense the rehearsals must have been with just director Deejay Gray and Lewis (with pianist Larri Branch playing away as Jimmy Powers)–the stomachache is coming back. Time to move on.
When it is
The Lady will be performing through December 12th. It’s a brief show, a little under 90 minutes, by my reckoning.
How much it costs
Other things to note
There is no intermission! Please relieve yourself before the show. You can also buy some drinks at the bar and take them to your seat. Billie certainly won’t mind, she’ll even pour you one herself (seriously, if you’re sitting in the right seat).
There’s no wheelchair accessibility at the Basement, which is a huge bummer! Also, the Basement is currently accessible behind construction fences, but you can still get there.
If you don’t go do this, you will…
Listen to Billie Holiday without really feeling it. That’s a real shame!