Evanston’s Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre has had a triumphant summer, garnering 11 nominations for Black Theatre Alliance/Ira Aldridge Awards for its productions of “Yellowman” and “Sweet.”
Now is the time for those who have not seen a FJT play to get to the Noyes Cultural Arts Center: “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” the final summer play, is a glorious, haunting recreation of the songs and stories of Billie Holiday, performed by the accomplished jazz singer Mardra Thomas as Billie, with the superb accompaniment of pianist Reginald (Reggie) Thomas as Jimmy Powers.
Ms. Holiday has been called one of the most important singers of the 20th century, whom Frank Sinatra credited as his greatest influence. Born Eleanora Fagan, she adopted the name Billie Holiday (a combination of the actress Billie Dove’s first name and her father’s surname) and was nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend, the jazz musician Lester Young. She sang with all the great bandleaders and musicians of the Golden Age of jazz, but suffered from childhood abuse, addiction, and the racism that kept her from walking through the front door of establishments where she was the headlining performer.
Playwright Lanie Robertson conceived of the play in 1986 after hearing about Ms. Holiday’s performing at a club in 1959, four months before her death: “There were seven people in the audience. She came in, high as a kite, carrying her little dog, tripped on the microphone wire, sang about 12 songs and stumbled out.”
From the moment Mardra Thomas, as Billie, enters, hesitantly, in almost total darkness silhouetted by what seems like moonlight, the audience is held spellbound. Revealed by a pink spotlight in a strapless white gown and long gloves, she begins singing “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” the kind of song about loving an unworthy man that she made famous. Her voice is rough and marked by years of substance abuse, but the Holiday magic is still there – the sense of intimacy, the throb of authentic feeling, the jazz rhythms.
From there we are taken on a 90-minute roller coaster of emotions, as Lady Day sings her classic hits, including the mischievous “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” a jazz standard she made famous; “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” “Easy Living,” “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business If
I Do,” “Don’t Explain” and more. Reggie Thomas’s lush, elegantly virtuosic playing provides a rich counterpoint to Ms. Thomas’s voice.
Between those songs, Lady Day shares anecdotes of her personal and professional life, by turns chatty, bawdy, joyous, and pain-filled, while helping herself to booze and at one point leaving the stage, presumably for a dose of heroin.
As Director Tim Rhoze sees it, her music, like her stories, “resonate with the emotions that I think sum up the rocky landscape that is American history.” Ms. Holiday sang of the darker side of love, but also of injustice and racism, especially in her signature songs “Strange Fruit,” a protest against lynching, and her own composition “God Bless the Child,” about what happens when one is down and out. These songs and reminiscences “capture, in part, snapshots of our American history as a community and as individuals,” Mr. Rhoze says.
Mr. Rhoze recalls, “I’ve wanted to produce and direct ‘Lady Day’ for several seasons; I knew it would be a popular show and that it would continue to bring a diverse audience to our theatre. Mardra brings a great deal of humor and humanity to a role that could just be filled with pathos and pity; not to mention she brings a wonderful jazz vocalization and styling to Billie’s songs.”
Sound designer Sarah Putts, lighting designers Phoenix and Oliver Ballentine, and costume designer Lauren Crotty, have created a dreamy, twilight space for Lady Day’s singing and stories. Director Tim Rhoze’s monochromatic set design for Emerson’s Bar achieves a similar moody effect.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” runs through Aug. 27 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St. Performances are Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12-17.
On Aug. 26, there will be a special performance of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” for Fleetwood-Jourdain’s annual Wine & Dine Gala. “Billie” will be accompanied by an all-star jazz trio. A $75 ticket includes a pre- and post-show reception with hors d’oeuvres, dessert, wine, champagne, and dancing. More information is available at fjtheatre.com.