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Four months before her death in 1959, Billie Holiday took the stage at a Philadelphia dive and sang her heart out for a small, adoring audience. Playwright Lanie Robertson dramatizes that event in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which serves as Curio Theatre Company’s return to live performances after two pandemic years.
Robertson draws from historical precedence. Emerson’s Tavern was a real joint, on 15th and Bainbridge, that hosted jazz greats before closing in 1960. And despite her complicated relationship with Philly, her birthplace, Holiday performed here often. She found the city a sympathetic venue in the later years of her career and life, when she struggled with drug dependency and legal troubles that kept her from singing regularly in New York cabarets.
Yet the play itself functions like many biographical portraits, weaving together an artist’s songbook and a monologue that delves deep into her life story. Robertson offers a glimpse of Holiday through her music, her charmingly bawdy personality, and her ease at connecting with an audience, even as she slides farther into a substance-driven haze. The script occasionally feels clunky in the way it shoehorns in a factual detail, but overall, it creates a rich image of a complicated woman.
In full command
Bringing Holiday back to life—and transporting contemporary spectators back to the 1950s—is no easy feat. It requires scrupulous production design and an actor willing to burrow deep into a role that calls for stylish singing and expressively honest acting. Luckily, Curio’s fine production, directed by Katrina Shobe, has both.
Resident set designer Paul Kuhn has transformed a small anteroom in the basement of Curio’s longtime Baltimore Avenue home into a warm, intimate nightclub space, complete with cabaret tables, a postage stamp-sized stage, and a functional bar. (Drinks are not served due to pandemic safety measures.) Stepping into this slightly elegant, slightly seedy room feels a bit like stepping back in time, especially as the music revs up and the lighting (by Kuhn and Steve Carpenter) turns hazy. I’d be happy if Curio kept it in perpetuity and turned it into an active nightspot.
As Holiday, Ebony Pullum exhibits full command of the stage and of her character’s complicated emotional range. She begins the performance almost bored, perfunctorily sauntering through expected standards like “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” before opening up with stories about Holiday's beloved but difficult mother, her troubled time in jail, and her lingering desire to have children of her own. It takes Pullum some time to settle into Holiday’s distinctive speech pattern, but her presence is always entirely inhabited.
A portrait of a great artist
Robertson blends storytelling and song together best in the long introduction to “God Bless the Child,” which Holiday wrote for her mother, and Pullum transforms the moment into an affecting journey. She sings that tune, and the dozen others that make up the musical bill, with style, wit, and passion. Shawn Bobien provides able piano accompaniment, and Damien Figueras scales the sound design to suit the intimacy of the space.
As the evening continues, the sense grows more clearly that Holiday is slipping toward a point of no return. She grows more dependent on her bourbon highball and trips offstage to consult with a “doctor.” Playing this kind of progression is always difficult—actors tend to overstate the physical mannerisms of being in an altered state—but Pullum never reaches to communicate the reality of Holiday succumbing to her disease. More refreshingly, neither she nor Robertson’s script make it feel tawdry.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill emerges simply as a portrait of a great artist at the end of her life. It’s funny, entertaining, sad, and reverent at the same time. And for 90 minutes, you feel the spirit of Billie Holiday returning to Philadelphia for one last gig.
What, When, Where
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. By Lanie Robertson, directed by Katrina Shobe. $15-$30. Through April 9, 2022, at Curio Theatre Company, 4740 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 921-8243 or curiotheatre.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is required to attend. Masks must be worn at all times.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is performed in the lower level of Curio Theatre’s building, which is accessible only by stairs.
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