The number of folks who can remember seeing Billie Holiday (1915-1959) perform in person dwindles as the years pass by. We are left with photos, recordings and a few videos to preserve the memory of the singer who Ken Burns’ “Jazz” documentary series called the “most important in the history of jazz.”
Efforts have been made to maintain an appreciation of Holiday’s importance and one of the most resilient has been Lanie Robertson’s theater piece called “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Freeport Factory Stage just opened a production of the show under the direction of Julie George-Carlson and, though it provides more of a sketch than a portrait, it begins to get at what went into the making and unmaking of a major star.
The play takes place at a bar where Holiday is giving one of her last performances and features spoken biographical reminiscences along with performances of some of the tunes she made very much her own. Mardra Thomas fills the lead role and, in a blue sequined dress and fur stole, took the stage at Friday’s performance accompanied by local stalwart Flash Allen on an upright piano.
Her Billie paid homage in words and songs to her greatest influences, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, as well as noting how the great saxophonist Lester Young gave her the nickname Lady Day.
Thomas didn’t exactly try to imitate Holiday’s sound but did approximate her distinctive range and timing on classics such as “God Bless the Child” and “Easy Living.” It was during such moments that the singer’s legacy really came through and there was magic in the air.
“I wanna sing what I feel,” her Holiday declared. Indeed, Thomas appeared to make that happen on several selections.
After a monologue recounting the discrimination that Holiday had experienced while on tour with Artie Shaw, “Strange Fruit” was doubly touching. Likewise, a moving “Don’t Explain” followed from some detailing of her difficult relationships with men and time spent in prison on drug charges.
Though the first act featured a joking Holiday, by the second act the wages of time and substance abuse were very much conveyed by Thomas, now unsteady on her feet and drifting off into some other world where the mixture of pain and joy that one could hear in her singing could find a final resolution.
This show brings back an artist who deserves to be remembered.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.