Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill
by Anthony Chase
Joyce Carolyn scored a huge hit back in the 1980s with her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson’s ingeniously devised play, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Theater of Youth originally staged the piece, creating a nightclub environment in the old Franklin Street Theatre, a space that now serves as the Buffalo Chop House. The show packed in audiences and ran and ran and ran.
Miss Carolyn is assuming the Billie Holiday persona once again, this time in a production directed by Mary Craig at the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center on Masten Avenue.
Over the years, the piece has proven to have enduring appeal for a number of actresses. The conceit is as simple as it is clever. Lady Day performs at Emerson’s Philadelphia nightclub shortly before her death. Over a course of a single evening, set in real time, Billie shares stories from her life—happy ones and sad ones—punctuated by familiar tunes from her immortal repertoire.
Before the night is over, Billie will have sustained and survived a breakdown, induced by a combination of drugs, drink, and life itself. Her devoted accompanist, whose affection for Lady Day helps us see beyond her flaws and vulnerability, helps her finish the evening, and despite or because of what we have seen, the audience leaves in a state of pure joy.
The effectiveness of the piece evolves from the gentleness of the strokes with which Robertson renders Lady Day and pre-Civil Rights America. It has often been noted that successful productions have never depended upon a convincing impersonation of the Billie Holiday. Moreover, our journey is observational, not didactic. Through the magic of the theater, the show somehow fulfills an impossible wish to be in the living presence of the great Billie Holiday.
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