Lady Day at Emerson’s

Bar & Grill

at the Athenaeum Theatre

By Albert Williams

I have to say I was skeptical about how Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Lanie Robertson’s drama about Billie Holiday at the end of her life, would work with Eartha Kitt in the title role. I’d been greatly moved when the play ran at Wisdom Bridge in 1989, partly because of Ernestine Jackson’s uncanny impersonation. But Kitt is little like Holiday: her high cheekbones and angular features are very different; she’s petite where Holiday was statuesque; and while Holiday was 44 at the time of her death, Kitt is closing in on 70. More important, Kitt’s distinctive singing is nothing like that of the great jazz vocalist: where Holiday, influenced by trumpeter Louis Armstrong, liked to bend and twist a familiar tune and drag against an insistent beat, Kitt sticks close to a song’s original melody and rhythms. Would Kitt distort her conversational cabaret style in an attempt to imitate Holiday, I wondered, as Diana Ross did in the movie Lady Sings the Blues? Or would Holiday’s brilliant music and battered life become merely a vehicle for a self-indulgent star turn?

Happily, neither is the case. In one of the most magnetic performances I’ve ever seen Kitt eschews any effort to be “like” Holiday, despite occasional mannerisms that recall her. Instead she conveys something more compelling and convincing than the most accurate imitation could, inhabiting her character completely. At once transcendent and earthy, tough and fragile, blowsy and dignified, Kitt conveys a woman whose free-flowing, sometimes woozy memories transport her–and us–back and forth through her life, changing her from wide-eyed child to rapturous young lover to beat-up junkie old before her time. Her deceptively slurred, always articulate singing recalls Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya more than Holiday or Bessie Smith (one of Holiday’s idols), but that’s of little importance–especially with Holiday’s recordings in plentiful supply. What Kitt captures is an essence: the wounded but resolute inner power that makes Billie Holiday an iconic figure whose impact extends far beyond her importance as the first great jazz singer.

Holiday’s significance as artist and as legend is a matter of controversy; in his recent biography Billie Holiday, Stuart Nicholson complains that his subject “has been so consumed by her image that it has rendered her a victim at the expense of her music.” He quotes singer Annie Ross: “The jazz singer who over-drank, over-drugged, had a terrible time with men, with being a black person in white society; [Holiday has] become the personification of all that….Sure, she had a voracious appetite, had her hangups too, but she would hate to be seen today as a tragic figure.” Yet the point of Robertson’s play is that you can’t separate Holiday’s life from her art: her singing drew on the suffering she experienced due to racism, poverty, drugs, and her own sexual impetuosity. Lady Day explores those elements to help us understand her music, but it never turns Holiday into a victim. As for “tragic,” I think Ross really means “pathetic”–and Kitt and Robertson’s Holiday is hardly that. Instead she’s tragic in the grandest and richest sense, of a noble hero rising spiritually even as she succumbs physically.

Set in the spring of 1959, a couple of months before Holiday died with 70 cents in her bank account, Lady Day takes place in a dumpy Philadelphia nightclub. (She’d rather be singing in New York, but the clubs there are off-limits because of her prison record.) What starts out as a concert soon becomes a near monologue, as Holiday struggles to make contact with her “friends”–us, an audience of strangers whose adoration of and distance from the star are part of the play’s subtext. Despite impatient cues from her taciturn accompanist (the superb pianist Donn Trenner), who’s determined to ward off yet another laughing fit or crying jag by sticking to the set list, Holiday’s musical selections are interrupted by increasingly extended ruminations–seemingly random, though in fact they’re deftly stitched together by playwright Robertson. The stories are touching and interesting in themselves: bittersweet memories of Holiday’s mother, “the Duchess,” for whom she wrote “God Bless the Child”; an angry yet funny account of a southern diner that made Holiday eat in the kitchen, then refused her the use of the bathroom (her revenge on the arrogant hostess is literally a pisser); disquieting tales of how her first husband, Jimmy Monroe, got her hooked on heroin and then had her take the rap for him on a possession bust, which eventually cost Holiday her New York cabaret license. There’s bitter sweetness here, too: Holiday crooning “Them There Eyes” to her adorable pet dog is a surefire crowd pleaser made poignant by her comment that all she ever wanted in life were the children she never had.

Kitt lives each of these stories as she tells it, her soul jumping free of her worn-down frame to traverse the years. Under Jeffrey B. Moss’s sensitive direction, and aided immeasurably by Todd Hensley’s brilliant lighting, Kitt makes every image count, using her graceful arms and strong legs to suggest a blend of delicacy and power. (Her onetime teacher, the great African-American choreographer Katherine Dunham, would be proud.) Deeply connected to the text, Kitt makes us feel how all the songs and stories add up to one woman’s life–and how that life in turn embodies dark strains in American life. Her Holiday, ragged from years of racial inequity and sexual misuse, is indeed a tragic figure, but the tragedy is all of ours. When she sings “Strange Fruit,” Lewis Allen’s harrowing lyric about the lynching of a black man, she doesn’t wallow in horror; she examines each image in the song carefully, making us see why Allen compared a strung-up corpse to rotting fruit waiting for carrion crows. In the clarity of her rendition, the poem speaks eloquently of how one person’s suffering becomes the suffering of a race, and one race’s suffering the nation’s.

Not a legend like Holiday, Kitt is nonetheless very much a star as well as a first-rate stage actor, and both qualities are crucial to the success of this often astonishing performance. Reminding us that she and Holiday are two different people–in part by having a huge photo of Holiday projected on the back wall of the stage–Kitt draws on her own troubled career as an outspoken, temperamental African-American woman artist to give a performance of unapproachable authority. The result is not only riveting drama; it’s an experience of spellbinding, almost ritual intensity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.