A Beautiful Lady

Shadow Theatre shines a light on this wrenching retelling of Billie Holiday's downfall.

There are evenings when my job seems like the best in town, and the Shadow Theatre Company's Lady Day at Emerson¹s Bar and Grillprovided one of them.

The lights come up on a muted gray-green background, a piano, a nosegay of gardenias on a round table. Piano notes sound, clear and small as drops of rain, courtesy of gifted jazz player Doug Roche. A woman yells from off stage -- something about "I can't, Jimmy," maybe accompanied by a few profanities -- and on staggers Mary Louise Lee as Lady Day or, as the critics were apparently calling her by 1959 (when this play is set), Lady Yesterday.

Playwright Lanie Robertson created Lady Day to commemorate Billie Holiday's genius and recount her tormented life. Holiday's performance at Emerson's Bar and Grill in Philadelphia was one of her last; a few weeks later, her drug- and alcohol-raddled lifestyle killed her. Lee gives the Shadow Theatre performance everything she's got. She shouts out her jokes and awards them her own raucous laughter. She communicates raunchiness, pain and vulnerability. She argues with piano player Jimmy Powers (Roche), wheedles and cozies up to him. Sometimes, when a song is over, she stands with her head slightly to the side, acknowledging the applause; she's gracious, smiling and -- for that brief moment -- full of dulcet power. Most of all, she sings. Her voice is smooth as glass, her phrasing sinuous. At times she sounds uncannily like Holiday, at others entirely like her full-throated self. She does an amazing imitation of Bessie Smith roaring out "Give Me a Pig's Foot and a Bottle of Beer," feet planted, hips grinding (Holiday claimed Smith as her artistic mother, Louis Armstrong as her father), and she does full plaintive justice to such songs as "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone."

Holiday was born to a thirteen-year-old mother. By the time she was ten, she was scrubbing floors in a Baltimore whorehouse. A couple of years later, she was raped; eventually she turned to prostitution. Her first husband introduced her to heroin. Now she's at the end of the line. The critics have declared her a has-been. Her parole officers are watching for any slip. All that's left is the music and Powers -- his playing and his voice. He attempts to keep the act on track; he coaxes her to keep going; he urges her to take a break and see the doctor: heroin.

The evening moves on a kind of stream of consciousness: Each song evokes memories; the memories evoke more songs. Holiday describes the joy and terror of standing on stage at New York City's Carnegie Hall. She muses about her mother, whom she calls the Duchess, and that leads to a pure, urgent rendition of "God Bless the Child." We're told of the phone call in which she learned of her father's death, the impersonal voice asking what was to be done with the remains. Lee mimes placing the phone back on the receiver, and then there's a moment of aching silence before she sings "Somebody's on My Mind." The rendition of "Strange Fruit" chills to the marrow; it leaves the singer emptied and exhausted, and she staggers off the stage for a fix, returning with her mind unfocused and her legs wambling.

I have some quibbles about the monologue that follows, in which Holiday finally falls completely apart. Lee fills the words with feeling, but she and director Jeffrey Nickelson have chosen to render the speech in a series of garbled and distorted semi-shrieks that make it incomprehensible. Or perhaps that's how it's written.

There's a contradiction built into Robertson's script. By the last weeks of Holiday's life, her famous voice was in rags, but a realistic portrayal could hardly carry an evening in the theater, let alone do justice to Holiday's artistry. Lee's singing is absolutely radiant, but by the end of the evening, she has nonetheless managed to communicate Billie Holiday's emotional dissolution.

Lady Day is not just a tribute to an iconic figure; it also opens a window onto a shameful era in America's history. Holiday's anecdote about being denied access to a restaurant toilet when her bladder was bursting is hilarious, but it also vividly reminds us of the daily slights, dangers and humiliations inflicted on America's black citizens through most of the last century.

Those days may be over, but racism remains -- though sometimes in subtle and diffuse forms. Given this, the Shadow Theatre Company, with its emphasis on education, healing and community, has a crucial role to play. The current economic climate and Governor Bill Owens's draconian cuts in arts funding have placed the company in danger. Nickelson, who founded Shadow five years ago on $500 and pure faith, has said he's not sure he can keep going.

For your own sake and to witness a stunning evening of theater, make a dash to the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center before the month is out. For the sake of the rest of us, volunteer to help in some way, become a season-ticket holder or -- if you possibly can -- add a contribution to the ticket price.

 
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