Thursday, October 12, 2017

What a Little Moonlight Can Do: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill

Portland Stage opened its season with a revival (new production) of Lanie Robertson’s Greek tragedy Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Greek tragedy, you ask? Yup. The only true difference between, say, Medea and Billy Holiday being the horrors and atrocities endured by Lady Day are all chillingly true.

The scene: Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Philadelphia, March 1959 – only months before the music industry lost one of its supremely uniquely gifted voices, and most tortured souls breathed her last, at the far too young age of 44.

Many critics made hash of Robertson’s play calling it (apart from its songs) clichéd and predictable. To them I say, as would his Lady Day, “Well, fuck that shit.” I’ve now seen several productions and each has had the power to destroy its audience, cajoling us, chiding us, inviting us and chilling us to our collective core. Each production has had its own spin while remaining true to Billie’s tale of woe.

Portland is lucky to have a veteran of the play, Tracey Conyer Lee, now in her fourth production as Billie, who, from the outset, demonstrates she has the singer, to be indelicate here, under her skin. The voice is bigger, plusher than Holiday’s, but skillfully deployed making judicious use of that famous husky tang, and way with words. It’s as though we’re meeting a stranger, before suddenly realize it’s someone familiar. It packs a jolt. Every time.

Robertson’s script presents Holiday’s life in an extended monologue weaving its way through 15 songs that run the emotional gamut from playful to tortured. Those unfamiliar with the Lady’s life can’t help but wince as she systematically, with a combination of melodrama and detachment, recalls the death of her mother, being raped at the age of 10 and sold into prostitution and beginning the downward spiral of heroin and booze that would ravage her body and soul.

With the dexterity of a dancer, Lee’s Billie navigates the multileveled stage in a pair of death-defying high heels, bowing and bending, nearly crashing into walls with the elasticity of a genuine drunk trying to maintain her dignity. She is ever blithely unaware of just how uncomfortable she’s making everyone around her. An ever present bottle of whiskey on the bar, through tumbler after tumbler she comfortably numbs herself, loosening both lips and limbs. One can't help but feel enormously for this woman, never pity, but compassion and great concern. One of the evening’s strongest moments is the sequence leading up to the tragic song, “Strange Fruit.” Billie rails and wails about the disgusting treatment of blacks in that era as we, comfortably seated in a climate controlled auditorium, realize though we're in a much improved America since then, how very far away we remain from equality and justice. It's bracing.

There are, to be sure, great moments of levity and Ms. Lee has the audience in the palm of her hands and when she calls us “my friends,” it feels like an honor to be in such company.

Gary Mitchell stars as pianist Jimmy Powers who does his level best to keep his Lady on track – a feat which proves impossible. Ross Gallagher contributes nicely on the bass.

Earlier in the evening Billie mentions how, for the year and a day she was imprisoned, she never sang a note asking, “you ever heard a dead person singin’?” This comes into play in the haunting, wistful final scene – here a coup de théâtre as, above us, stars begin to twinkle overhead and a lush moon makes its presence known. Ah, what a little moonlight can do.

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