|Terry Burrell as Lady Day|
We who gather to honor the power and the glory of Dr. King’s triumphant march for racial justice will be denied the heartache and joy of a live performance by Billie Holiday. Lady Day, as she became known, died in a hospital where she was being treated for drug and alcohol abuse almost a decade before Dr. King’s murder. She was being guarded by a New York City policeman and at last breath had every reason to believe that if she survived, a court appearance was inevitable.
The pain and anguish of this jazz icon is embedded in her music, songs that touch the heartstring and cry out . Weeks before her end, she took the stage at Emerson’s Bar on Philly’s south side, before an audience who witnessed one of Billie Holiday’s last solo performances. At 44, her days had dwindled but on this cold day in Atlanta, the stage at Theatrical Outfit brought her life and timeless music back for almost two hours in "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.”
Full of heart-melting numbers like “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” Billie’s songs held nothing back about her her loves and losses. Starring Atlanta’s own Terry Burrell, twelve songs seem like dozens more as the audience journeyed with Billie and the songs she performed with giants like Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw, Lester Young and others.
Lady Day, observes the production’s musical director S. Renee Clark, “was one of the greatest storytellers of jazz . . . bold enough to put politics in her work, with songs like Strange Fruit, when others of her era were not.” We can only imagine the psychic damage of racism and its cruel government sponsored segregation laws. Billie takes us on the road with one of her bands, Artie Shaw’s magnificent orchestra and searches for a restroom in Birmingham and a lunch in some other (any) city, to be reminded that normal behavior and the customary basic humanity are not available her. She’s way too dark.
Lady Day fights back, suffers humiliation, only to triumph in Carnegie Hall and find even that to be a prelude for prison, a place awaiting the despairing addict whose only victim is herself.
I once asked Wynton Marsalis after an appearance at Emory University how he defined the Blues. “It’s fighting back through song,” he replied, “a way of surviving by never giving in or surrendering.” That’s a pretty good description of Lady Day’s songs in Emerson. Terry Burrell, brilliantly channeling a Billie Holiday that fights back and never willingly gives in. She allows us to visit a troubled soul and has us singing along whether we want to or not.
Lynching and love are juxtaposed with upbeat rhythms and heartache in a synthesis called jazz, that rich multicultural American elixir. Entering this theater that once was the site of a gourmet restaurant where Dr. King dined, begins a personal journey offering a “sacred risk,” according to artistic director Tom Key. Billie Holiday’s story is our own. How close we are to meeting our own tragic destiny. Whether addictions, loneliness, bad health or other forms of suffering, we are able to see hope, that powerful feeling that we may become a little more like her, a little more free and a little more blessed.
Theatrical Outfit’s stage becomes a nightclub. Come a little early, order something from the bar, leave some cash in the jar, take a chair near the stage and enjoy the instrumentals led by William Knowles at the jazz piano. This will warm you up for Lady Day. You’ll know her by the white gardenias in her hair.