Billie Holiday at the Downbeat in New York City

Lady Day’s stories always in jazz

Continually throws you off kilter, and it takes a while to figure out what’s going on

Lady Day continually throws you off kilter, and it takes a while to figure out what’s going on, experiencing life through Billie Holiday’s soliloquies, as she suffers a breakdown on stage, reliving a reality that fluctuates between desperation, prison, racism, harrowing love, addictions, and jazz… always jazz.

The play, by Lanie Robertson, is set at Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Philadelphia. It resurrects one of Billie Holiday’s last performances at a haunt in the city where she was born, a city she had a love-hate relationship with – four months later, on July 17, 1959, she died at age 44.

Abuse was a thread that ran through much of Billie Holiday’s music. Three strands that make up the patterns of trauma and despair can be identified: She was abused as a woman; as a female artist; and as a black woman, sometimes performing in the deep south.

The play is painfully relevant because, although Billie Holiday’s life ended 56 years ago, the abuses she lived persist and have mutated into new forms. We’re doing better, perhaps, but not so much better that we can put down our protest banners and say we’re a fully evolved civilization.

One need only say the words First Nation, then refine the focus to First Nation Woman, to find an empathetic chord to Billie Holiday’s songs up north, here. Or the word ‘poverty,’ applied to any race, location or sexual orientation.

The abuses Billie Holiday faced can be traced primarily to racism, and pointedly racism in the deep south – where the confederate flag has only recently been officially lowered for the last time at the South Carolina Statehouse.

Her song, Southern Trees Bear Strange Fruit is a haunting and grim portrayal of racism in America. It’s opening lines are: “Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root…”

Holiday’s grandmother was a black slave; her grandfather the slave ‘owner.’

Kudos to: Glaucia Derochers, who played Billie Holiday; Director Michelle Tremblay, for bringing a complex musical together; the musicians Ron Joiner (drums), Nick Mintenko (bass), and Ron Karel Roessingh (piano and in the role of Jimmy Powers).

Applause as well to the Chemainus Valley Cultural Arts Society for making this their entre into the dramatic arts – a gutsy choice. And to Producer Pat Selman, who has realized ‘a dream project of mine for over 20 years.’

There is one aspect of the production, which will hopefully strengthen through Lady Day’s six performances. The acting wasn’t as confident as the music.

Derochers did get into her role more convincingly as the play progressed, and overpowered this shortcoming with her evocative renditions of Billie Holiday’s songs, but if she can get into the acting groove as confidently as she does the singing, this play will nudge up from great to fabulous.

The musical genre is not usually my favourite. But Lady Day thoroughly captivated. I left thinking of Billie Holiday’s life, and how hard it is to be different in this world, unless the differences that make you special are money, power and a narrow mind.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill will be performed six times from the Nov. 27 opening until Dec. 5. Details and tickets available at cvcas.com/ladyday. Arrive early if you want to get a table close to the stage.

 

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