When I learned that now six-time Tony award winner Audra McDonald was going to portray one of my favorite singers of all time, Billie Holiday, I became obsessed with the chance to see “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” on Broadway. The show was going to be in mid-winter in New York City; but I was willing to brave the cold for what I was certain would be a life changing performance.
What I didn’t realize was that Billie Holiday, whom I knew only through song, lived a heartbreaking life and died at age 44. I tend to eschew dark tragedy, so I was conflicted about how I would ultimately feel about the show. I didn’t see it, and McDonald won another Tony for her portrayal.
Flash forward to this year, when I found out that the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, which stages hit after hit to sold out audiences every year, was doing the show that I had longed to see. I came into the performance knowing very little about what to expect other than the unique casting of 72-year-old music legend Melba Moore in the role of Billie Holiday.
“Lady Day” is a tense and difficult production that puts issues of racial and gender inequities front and center. As the WBTT prepares to launch it’s much larger campus with space for education and outreach, “Lady Day” in many ways breaks new ground delving deeply into the terrible mistreatment of black artists, whom the theater so skillfully celebrates in all of its productions. Moore’s riveting performance was a paean to Holiday’s life interspersed with vocals that put Moore in a class of her own.
Moore, a Tony-winner herself, has had a long and illustrious career on Broadway, as a recording artist, and in film and television. She began working in the industry just as the civil rights movement was in full swing – several years after the death of the singer whom she lovingly and sympathetically portrays. During her tour-de-force performance, Moore spends most of the 90 minutes without intermission on stage.
Moore does not try to replicate Holiday’s distinctive willowy voice as McDonald did; but she gives us a very realistic portrayal of what life must have been like for Holiday as she struggled to make sense of her circumstances during lengthy riffs between songs. Day’s first husband cajoled her into trying heroin with him and left her literally holding the bag, which resulted in a year’s prison sentence that nearly destroyed her career. Moore also reputedly faced struggles with the men in her life, so you could see that she carefully fit herself into the part of Lady Day making the role her own.
She moved around in and settled into the difficult stories of Holiday’s life with the depth that only a seasoned actress could. She relished in one particularly moving story of Holiday’s time performing with legendary bandleader Artie Shaw when she treated a racist hostess to a special comeuppance. Moore made us feel marked unease watching a woman with the voice of an angel experience her own personal hell right before our eyes. Only during her knock out songs did this troubled woman seem to be at peace. Moore provided all the nuance of Day’s classic “God Bless the Child,” which we learn has a heart-breaking backstory; and, the highlight of the night was Holiday’s most famous song “Strange Fruit,” which Moore sang with all its eerie and tortured glory.
“Lady Day” is a show about one of America’s most beloved songstresses. The WBTT presents the audience with an oral history while effortlessly transporting us in time to a south Philly nightclub in the 1950’s. We share in her experience, her life, and become a part of her story. Your heart will sing in one moment and cry the next. It is live theater at it finest; raw, soulful, real.