Lalenja Harrington stepped into the role of Billie Holiday’s on Saturday night and carried the audience on an intense journey of abandonment, love, drugs, and racism that eventually ended in a death of the talented singer.
In a ninety-minute played entitled “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”, Ms. Harrington, in a brutal, frank and honest performance, gave the audience a glimpse of the painful downfall of “Lady Day” . The show was held before a sold out audience in the Hanesbrand Theater, It started the 81st season at the Twin City Stage that will showcase a number of quality productions.
Ms. Harrington was joined on stage by pianist David Lane who played Jimmie Powers, Kady Day’s dedicated and faithful accompanist. Daniel Alvarez recreated the intimate setting of tables, microphone and piano Emerson Bar and Brill in Philadelphia, Pa. which was apparently the last performance of Lady Day before she died in 1959 at age 44.
Billie Holiday was a jazz icon who worked with a number of legendary artists including Artie Shaw, Lester Young and Benny Goodman. She recorded many songs including “God Bless the Child”, “Nobody Business”, “Moonlight”, “Pigfeet and bottle of beer” are famous Lady Day recording. And, one of her more dark, somber songs of “Strange Fruit” about the horrors of lynchings in the South in the early 1900s.
Ms, Harrington in her jazzy voice painted the picture of a trapped, beautiful songbird longing to be free from drugs and the sins of racism. In a “wounded poignancy”, she was dangerously bold in capturing the pain, brutality, and anger over lynching in “Strange Fruit”. She initially refused to record the song because the subject matter was too overpowering.
She was majestic in hallmark flowing white gown, and elbow-length gloves, as she mingled with the audience. She spoke about trying to imitate the singing style of Bessie Smith and Louis “Pop” Armstrong before finding her voice in songs like “Good Morning Heartaches” and other standards.
Lady Day told the audience of “ladies”, “duchesses” and “presidents” often names that oppress people gave themselves to uplift their spirit in order to combat racism. The play gave insight into why she got involved in prostitution, about being raped, and about the love of man that she knew was destroying her career and life by introducing her to drugs. That’s alright she still loved him, and “Ain’t Nobody business if I do..”
And, she reminiscence about her arrest and imprisonment for drugs that It robbed her of her angelic voice and blocked her from performing in New York City clubs. Often time her parole officer would be in the audience to spy on her, and she joked about her ability to spot cops in the audience because they “were white men and they always wore white socks.”
The shroud of race infected everything that she did from her performance to her personal life. It was evident in traveling through the south in the 1930s a ” black bitch” with an all white band. She couldn’t get served at restaurants or find hotels to stay in so they often ate in the kitchen or slept on buses. But Artie Shaw and his band refuse to eat in all-white restaurants unless Billie Holiday could join them.
This play is about a gifted and talented black woman whose personal life, and social evil of racism eventually destroyed her career and life.