The year is 1959. The place is South Philly, inside a club called Emerson’s. It is here that legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday performed one of her last concerts just months before succumbing to heart failure. It is also the setting for Lanie Robertson’s play, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
Holiday’s self-proclaimed style is a cross between Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. But here in this North Carolina Theatre production, there is even some Angela Robinson thrown into the mix, which imbues a kind of worldly-wise sensibility to the bio-musical.
Robinson is perhaps best known to audiences for her portrayal of Veronica Harrington on television’s The Haves and Have Nots. But on this stage, she embodies the essence of Holiday without succumbing to imitation or type. Her phrasing, tone, and inflection are perfect, amplified only by small moments director Jarvis Antonio Green prescribes, which add richness to Robertson’s faulty script.
Indeed, Robertson’s timeline assumes the audience is already familiar with Holiday’s history, beyond her music, which may leave some confused as to how the songs, structure, and script are working unitedly to paint a portrait of profound talent and persecution.
Even so, there is something sultry, satisfying, and even sibylline about this visit to Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which is why, even if you’ve stopped by here once or twice before, it may be worth another look.
The North Carolina Theatre production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill runs through Sunday at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. For more information visit https://nctheatre.com/.