Wisdom Bridge Theatre

For years I’ve waited for someone to drop a pin in a theater. No one did the evening I saw Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill–which was a pity. Ernestine Jackson, playing a woman who’s rapidly losing hold of herself, takes a very firm hold of the crowd. This spellbinding, heartbreaking 90-minute homage from one artist to another makes a mockery of robotic replications like Beatlemania and Elvis, Elvis, Elvis.

A slice of life and death as rich in its details as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill takes place late at night in March 1959–the last year of Billie Holiday’s life. The scene is a South Philly bar, a seedy dump that brings back some bad memories for the sinking singer.

The 44-year-old Billie we see is not the woman who played Carnegie Hall. She’s not the confident “jazz singer with a blues beat” (as she calls herself in the play) who sang with the bands of Artie Shaw and Count Basie and recorded with Lester Young, Benny Goodman, and Teddy Wilson. Sure, the voice is there, with all its smoky intimacy. And in 15 selections, ranging from the great “God Bless the Child” to “Them There Eyes,” Jackson shows how Holiday could give a ballad a lush lyricism that disguised the pain and made it seem much more processed than it was. What’s scary is how fast this 1959 Billie, now deep into guzzling gin and shooting the smack that would soon kill her, has hit the skids. (Sardonically, she calls herself “Lady Yesterday.”) Her first words, heard offstage, are: “I can’t!” This night, at least, she can. But Jackson’s Billie is so painfully on edge and out of control that we never lose the feeling that maybe she was right the first time.

Lady Day says, “I just want to sing.” But she also wants to confess–to tell “friends” out there in the darkness how much hard times (and hard time in prison) got in the way of her songs. All she ever wanted, Billie says, was children, a nice house, and her own small club where she could “let my songs find me.” What she got was a life that’s produced scar-tissue memories. She was raped at the age of ten, and humiliated on the road with the Shaw band when a sadistic white proprietress wouldn’t let her relieve her bursting bladder in the women’s john (Holiday got quick revenge on this harpy). She panicked at Carnegie Hall, her knees knocking together under her full-length dress, and was briefly comforted during another gig when the Shaw band joined her in the kitchen–she hadn’t been allowed to sit anywhere else.

Her worst memory is Sonny Monroe, the hophead who hooked her on heroin. (When Billie calls heroin her “moonlight,” her famous “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” takes on a whole new meaning.) It was Sonny who got her arrested in 1947, when she took the rap for hiding his drugs. (Holiday’s lawyer told her she could get parole by pleading guilty, but the judge, enraged at how well dressed she was, sent her to a mean West Virginia prison for a year and a day. Then her parole kept her from singing where she wanted.) Only on drugs or when singing her hard-earned blues did Billie Holiday feel in control, a cliche about hard-driven performers that feels brand-new here.

Billie’s memories tumble out between–and sometimes during–the songs. Not all of the memories are hard: she talks about how to make pig’s feet and red beans; how she learned to sing by imitating records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith she heard in a bordello; how she wrote “God Bless the Child” as a gift for “Duchess,” the bighearted mother she adored. She talks about the shock of discovering her great-grandmother dead in bed with her, and of brutally learning in 1937 that her father’s death was the result of medical malpractice–a white doctor thought this black man was expendable. (This was the same year that Bessie Smith died, turned away from a white hospital after she was in an auto accident.)

The accumulated rage from all these body blows of bigotry–“I knew a nice white man once,” she slurs out–spills over into torch songs given an extra edge of dead-end desperation or hard-eyed resignation: “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” the simmering “Don’t Explain,” or her valedictory “When a Woman Loves a Man.” But the songs aren’t enough at this point; dying Billie is too close to the pain for the songs to do her any more good.

Sharing the lonely stage with Billie is Jimmy Powers, her pianist and last link to reality (Darryl G. Ivey, in a powerful, understated performance). It’s Jimmy who makes sure that Billie delivers her songs before she gets too juiced, who subtly uses the piano to calm her down and cue her back to the next number, and who finally takes over the mike and placates the house–with a marvelous “Ebb Tide”–when Billie runs offstage for a fix. Ivey’s stolid character says little, but his deep patience and persuasive piano tell volumes about how Jimmy keeps Lady from going under sooner rather than later.

Director Arnold Mittelman refuses, like the playwright, to rip art out of life’s context: his staging acutely connects Billie’s memories to her songs. You get a hell of a lot more here than a hit parade of Holiday favorites–you know the price on every tune. Kevin Rigdon’s blue-tinted lighting is as haunted as the music.

And first and last, Ernestine Jackson is a singing, acting marvel: hunched over in her sleek white gown and gripping the microphone as if it were the song, joyously sprawling across the piano as she crowds Jimmy’s busy fingers, caressing, almost clinging to, the Shih Tzu dog she carries on at the end, or gracefully pinning her camellia corsage into her hair–Billie’s trademark. Whether she’s hot-wired or slumping into a stupor, Jackson puts Billie palpably there; we feel how deep inside these songs were before she sang them. You could have heard a pin drop.

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