Review: Witnessing the Swan Song of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Quite a few people say they love the music of Billie Holiday, having heard only God Bless the Child or—the song controversial in its time—Strange Fruit. Those songs cannot come close to the immense gift of her talent. The depth of pain reflected in Holiday's road-weary interpretation of music has become canonical in jazz. The Mercury Theater's production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is the story of Billie Holiday at the end of her life, singing in tiny clubs after losing her cabaret card—a musician's license to play for the public. Alexis J. Roston stars as Holiday and co-directs with Christopher Chase Carter. Nygel D. Robinson plays her accompanist and friend Jimmy Powers.

Alexis J. Roston. Photo by Liz Lauren.

This production is a reasonable interpretation of playwright Lanie Robertson's dialogue interspersed with Holliday's music adding layers of emotion. Roston does fine work taking on Holiday's stage persona in a white dress and arm sleeves to cover the track marks of heroin use. Most importantly she makes a good approximation of Holiday's ravaged voice at the end of her life. Roston is fearless with the frank dialogue and increasingly inebriated movement around the stage and through the cabaret setup, but I feel that she could have given a more dangerous edge to her performance. From what I have read about Holiday, she was a lot tougher and more demanding than she is portrayed here. She would not have begged for a fix and should have been portrayed as more combative.

The stories in between songs are tales of racism, violence, and the devastation that fed Holiday's talent for interpreting music like no other singer. Playwright Robertson often writes about people's historical characters. It is an indication of his brilliant talent that he was able to write about the events of Holiday's life with such authenticity. It is not often that I experience a Black woman's life, inner thoughts, and emotions as being in the wheelhouse of a White man. Holiday's struggles with being taken advantage of by people in her quest for love are written beautifully and interpreted with authenticity by Roston.

Nygel D. Robinson serves as the music director of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, with music veterans Jeff Harris on bass and Harold Morrison (A Night with Felicia Fields) on drums. Robinson's character is based on Jimmy Powell who did accompany Holiday in her later years. The piano is a step down from the cabaret stage making it difficult to see Robinson's face expressing heartbreak and sadness watching a beautiful talent in decline. The interaction between a singer and accompanist is intimate, being able to anticipate notes, phrasing, and tempo.

Nygel D. Robinson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The dialogue and action take the audience behind the scenes when Holiday insists on taking a break. Roston is seen in shadow loading a syringe, tying off her arm, and slumping forward as the hit takes hold. Robinson goes behind the curtain and encourages her to return to the stage. How some of the audience reacted to Roston returning to the stage with a live dog gave me an idea of how little some people knew about Holiday's life. Pepi is played by a cute little terrier mix and people reacted with several exhortations of "aww" and "how cute."

The dog was not the point of that scene as Holiday was known for her love of dogs; however, W.C. Fields' advice should have been taken. "Never act with children or animals—they are scene-stealing and completely unpredictable." Roston did not play that vignette as a person out of control and high. In the script, she is about to drop the dog when Jimmy takes Pepi back to the dressing room. There is no way of knowing if the reactions of Holiday's audience were the same as this one, but the extended cooing was annoying.

Alexis J. Roston. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is an evocative retelling of a time in America when race and gender had strict boundaries. Holiday's life was spent being slammed into obstacles. Even in death, she was given no peace—in a hospital under arrest and handcuffed to her bed. Roston is relatable performing the time and events up to that ignominious death. The music is the highlight of this production more that the characters. If it were a different artist, the music would have been enough, but this is not a musical in the traditional sense. Perhaps this is a choice in direction by Roston and Chase-Carter and can still evolve into a more balanced focus of Lady Day and her music.

I do recommend that you see Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. It is an entertaining evening of music and a glimpse into Billie Holiday's life. If you can, get one of the cabaret tables and you will see more of the reactions and interactions between Roston and Robinson. The show runs for 1 hour and 30 minutes through March 12, in the Venus Cabaret Theater at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport. (Valet parking is now available at the Mercury.) Individual tickets are $50-$60 and cabaret tables seating four are $259-$299. See the website for tickets and more info.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.