The Ebony Repertory Theatre production of ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’ on stage at freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, running through Sunday, April 24.
BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer
The production brings us face-to-face with the iconic songstress at death’s door. Set in 1959, the play takes place in a Philadelphia bar, which was actually listed in the Negro Motorist Travel Guide, or Green Book, as Emerson’s Tavern, four months before Holiday died.
The location symbolizes the absolute bottom for Holiday; in the play, she expresses her distaste for the city, where she was tried and convicted for drug possession years earlier. Sentenced to over a year at Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia, Holiday had her cabaret license revoked in New York, a significant loss in income for the singer.
As Holiday, Karole Foreman brings pain and delight in equal measure. The very nature of the play — its location and when it is set in her life — assures that the audience knows going in that it’s going to be a harrowing ending. Watching Foreman’s slow tumble from the beginning of the play is fascinating and fills us with tension.
Damon Carter, as pianist Jimmy Powers is an accomplished musician and is the only other character onstage throughout the evening. While we’re uncertain of the health of their relationship, he’s there making excuses for the tragic, brilliant singer. Directed by Wren T. Brown, the production is simple, the staging and set spare, giving the audience the feeling of being right in the Philly bar.
The piece is filled with more than a dozen Holiday songs, including classics “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “God Bless the Child,” “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” “Don’t Explain” and the chilling “Strange Fruit.”
While last year’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday offered the kind of over-the-top rawness that only a television movie can, this glimpse into the iconic singer’s life feels more immediate. Foreman’s portrayal pulls the audience into Holiday’s painful past, which feels effortless, even as her Holiday becomes increasingly erratic.
It’s a musically enjoyable, emotionally unsettling production and very worth the watch.
The Ebony Repertory Theatre production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, runs through Sunday, April 24. Call (727) 498-5205 or visit freefalltheatre.com.
To reach J.A. Jones, email firstname.lastname@example.org