Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Chicago Theatre Company. Lanie Robertson’s drama with music is a tour de force for the actress capable of meeting its demands–and happily Joyce Faison is up to the challenge. Set in a seedy Philly nightclub in 1959, the show takes the form of a concert performed by jazz great Billie Holiday a few months before her death at age 44. Her career and talent in decline, Holiday’s been hired to sing but would rather talk; resisting her accompanist’s efforts to coax her into another tune, she rambles on about her impoverished childhood, the influence of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith (whose records she heard in the whorehouse where her mother worked), her joy at discovering she could win acceptance by singing, her encounters with racism (including a hilarious anecdote about how she took revenge on a restaurant hostess who refused her use of the ladies’ room), and her passionate but ill-fated romance with the drug addict who got her hooked on heroin.
Under the direction of Douglas Alan-Mann, Faison’s expressive, mercurial portrayal makes us feel the tragedy of an exuberant spirit beaten down by prejudice, dope, and emotional insecurity; equally powerful are her alternately teasing and aching renditions of such Holiday classics as “Them There Eyes,” “God Bless the Child,” and “Strange Fruit”–sometimes uncannily accurate re-creations of the magnificent originals.