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'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill' offers intimate portrayal of iconic singer Billie Holiday

By Tom Maxedon
Published: Friday, October 13, 2023 - 4:55am
Updated: Friday, October 13, 2023 - 9:04am

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The Phoenix Theatre Company
Yolanda London stars as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill," produced by The Phoenix Theatre Company. Shows run through late November.

The Phoenix Theatre Company recently launched its new season in early September with a dynamic portrayal of singer Billie Holiday, titled, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”

The production was written by playwright Lanie Robertson and is told through Holiday’s anecdotes as well as singing. It stars Yolanda London who used to live in the Valley.

“When you learn to appreciate Billie, you have to understand some things about life. There’s so much joy in the storytelling and in her performance. But there’s also a lot of pain. This production doesn’t shy away from that. You get the light and the dark,” said London.

“‘Lady Day’ includes soulful and heart-wrenching songs from Holiday’s extraordinary music catalog and touches on her battles with alcoholism and drug abuse in her later years. The show takes place in 1959 in a seedy Philadelphia bar just four months before her tragic death,” according to director, Chanel Bragg.  

“It’s in south Philly,” she said, “which is a predominantly Black area, and the concert is at 12 o'clock at night. We have her enter all regal, and she’s the Billie Holiday. But, as the course of the night goes through — and I do think this is the playwright’s intention; it’s definitely the intention I leaned into as the director — was to really feel like Philadelphia has really hurt Billie Holiday.”   

Hear Chanel Bragg's interview with KJZZ's Tom Maxedon

Bragg also said audiences should think of the production as more of a play with music, rather than a musical. “It’s more Billie sharing anecdotes about her life between her set list. And there’s a very clear distinction of when she’s straying off the set, or when she’s being told to get back on the set list, or when she’s improvising a song on the spot. Whereas, musical theater is, ‘I have all these feelings inside me that are bubbling up that I just can’t do anything else but sing about it," Bragg said. 

In addition to the band — comprised of Deryk George on piano, Wallace Steele on bass, and Terry "LT" Green on drums, which acts as a character — London said the audience is one, too, as “there’s no barrier between her as Holiday and them.” In fact, she hopes they’ll interact.

The Phoenix Theatre Company
The band for "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill" is comprised of Deryk George on piano, Wallace Steele on bass, and Terry "LT" Green on drums.

“I ask questions of the audience when I’m up there as Billie,” said London. “I hope the audience walks away knowing your energy is vital to what’s going on here. This relationship between the artist and audience is real. How do we participate in that? How do we support these people [like Holiday] who are out here expressing humanity for us and reflecting humanity back to us?”  

From a directorial standpoint, Bragg was attracted to the playwright’s vision of giving audiences an evening with Holiday, rather than a deep retrospective of her life.

She said, “I didn’t want to do just a simple, ‘Billie Holiday was born in 1915 to Sadie Hagen’ I didn’t want it to be just your stereotypical history lesson.” 

Instead, Bragg likens viewing the performance to watching MTV’s version of, “Billie Unplugged.”

“That’s how it feels. It’s that intimate,” she said. “It’s that quiet, and she’s that close to you, other than the experience of her beautiful music and the incredible, phenomenal artist that she was, but how much of her humanity you get to experience.”

Ms. Dig Photography/Nora Canfield
Chanel Bragg is the director of, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill." The show is produced by The Phoenix Theatre Company and runs through late November.
 

London has played the role before, but this time it’s different.

“This is the first time I’ve done the show, and it was directed by a woman, and a Black woman at that,” she said. “I walked into the project saying, ‘OK, how is this room going to be different?’ The space that she created was honest, open and exploratory.”  

Hear Yolanda London's interview with KJZZ's Tom Maxedon

She hopes Holiday’s story inspires audiences to engage in self-reflection.  

“I want them to walk away feeling something. Feeling Billie’s blues. Feeling her light. Feeling her joy. Feeling her pain. I also hope that we sit back and reflect on the people around us, the experiences that they might be having and how we contribute, how we support and what we choose to ignore and what we choose to acknowledge,” said London.   

Maybe “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” acknowledges “What a little moonlight can do” to spotlight our shared humanity.  

The show-run produced by the 100-plus-year-old company continues through late November in the Judith Hardes Theatre on The Phoenix Theatre Company’s downtown campus.

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