LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL
LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL, Upstairs Belvoir, 14 September - 15 October 2023. Photography by Matt Byrne
This co-production between State Theatre Company, South Australia, Belvoir, and Melbourne Theatre Company is now on its second leg after opening in Adelaide.
Set designer Ailsa Paterson’s small corner stage and audience at tables around it places the Philadelphia jazz joint seamlessly into Belvoir’s own corner and it’s warmly lit by Govin Ruben’s lighting scheme of two pillars of spots, mood colour on the brick and tile walls, and the auditorium cheekily glowing beneath dozens of vintage lampshades.
On the stage, filling in, as tasty as they come, as the crowd waits, is the “Jimmy Powers Trio” – pianist Kym Purling, with Victor Rounds on double bass, and drummer Calvin Welch. Any singer would be thrilled to work with them (and musical arranger Danny Holgate). Nevertheless, in Lanie Robertson’s play-with-music, first staged in Atlanta, Georgia in 1986, we are all waiting for Lady Day – Billie Holiday – and she by then was nothing if not unpredictable.
Holiday was a music legend and had been for decades even though she was only 44. She had singlehandedly taken jazz and blues and remade them in her own image forever more. No one before or since had done what she did with a phrase, a beat, a lyric. So, after a shuddery, deliberate build-up and ten minutes late, she finally appears from the wings. She glides in, clad in a billowing ivory gown, with matching long gloves, and a faraway smile. As she reaches the standing mic the atmosphere is already charged, and the air crackles.
Yet there’s more. Within minutes of opening her mouth to pour the uniquely subtle, world-weary musicality into the microphone, Zahra Newman has disappeared and begins a tour de force, transcendent performance: she is Lady Day. There are no flashy fireworks or colour and movement to keep an audience happy, but there is palpable magic and authenticity and it ensures enthralled and total silence throughout. It’s remarkable.
Directed with utmost sensitivity and detail by Mitchell Butel, with Newman, the 90-minute show has Holiday relating almost as they occur to her, the parts of her life that have brought her to this point. It’s 1959 and within months, she would be dying in a New York hospital, her body ravaged by cirrhosis and a lifetime of booze and heroin. On this night, however, she can still get it together – after a detour to the wings for a little “moonlight” – and the resulting songs, fragmented or in their entirety, are sublime.
At times, Newman/Holiday wanders around the tables, chatting amiably with club patrons, at others and mostly, she is as one with the musicians in musical renditions that thrill or hurt by turn (sound design Andrew Howard). From the gaiety of What A Little Moonlight Can Do through diversions into her childhood heroes Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith (Gimme A Pig’s Foot (And A Bottle of Beer is an unexpected cracker). An almost lullaby approach to God Bless The Child takes the sting out of its semi-humorous jibe at her mother, while the sudden plunge into an unadorned version of Strange Fruit is shocking even though long anticipated.
Lady Day is not a concert, however, and the woman revealed between the songs is one who should ring some alarm bells in Australia 2023: a black child, born into extreme poverty albeit in a rich country. Discriminated against by white society with utter cruelty throughout her short life, yet a woman who took her gift and rose with it to immortality, despite all. Not that it made her existence any less painful even when clad in a mink coat and riding in a chauffeur-driven limousine, When A Woman Loves a Man (and he’s a manipulative drug pusher) illustrates that.
Lanie Robertson’s telling of Holiday’s story takes no liberties and sticks to the known facts. It avoids mawkishness, sentimentality, and sensation, even taking the (probably mostly white) audience further into the awful reality of mid-century America and the addict’s life than is comfortable.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is an extraordinary mix of confrontation and magic. Newman gives the performance of her career to date and is flawless. Do. Not. Miss.