You might be tempted to dress in your jazz club best when you head to Anacostia Playhouse to see Lady Day perform every weekend from Thursday to Sunday through August 6. Once you make it past the box office, you’re whisked past a bright “Bar” sign as the staccato piano and deep, sensual jazz bass call for you to step inside Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a rundown bar in South Philly in 1959, where you’re witnessing one of Billie Holiday’s final performances.
Anya Randall Nebel, under the direction of veteran DC actor and director Tom Flatt, brings Lady Day to life in the (almost) one-woman show Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Most of us know the story of Billie Holiday. Born Eleanora Fagan, she spent much of her youth in brothels in Baltimore and Harlem, where she was first exposed to the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. As a teenager, she sang in nightclubs in Harlem, and somewhere along the way, became an icon of America’s original art form.
With her signature, unconventional voice, she defined an era.
Nebel is able to bring humanity to this larger-than-life figure. In-between songs, some popular, some less well-known (unless you’re a Billie Holiday aficionado), she weaves together Holiday’s life story – giving insight into the joy and sadness of the young, impoverished girl nearly abandoned by her mother and raised by madames, the juvenile justice system and distant relatives.
She also portrays the many facets of Holiday: the young woman blossoming in her career, the glamorous and successful black woman who still has to put up with the humiliation of American racism that despises everything she represents, the woman who is blindly and passionately in love with a man who destroys everything important in her life, and onstage, a woman struggling with addiction and an intense desire to connect with people around her.
Sometimes, it’s lonely on the stage at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
There are a few humorous moments that Nebel recounts as Holiday (but I won’t spoil them for you) that lighten the mood, but some of the humor also rests with music director and pianist LeVar Betts, who makes his Anacostia Playhouse debut as Jimmy Powers — Holiday’s piano accompanist who is also tasked with keeping her sober and making sure she gets to all of the songs on her set list. Betts plays Powers as someone who is both slightly embarrassed to be onstage with the aging Holiday, and still cares for her and hopes that she puts on a good show.
The show ends with Nebel belting “Deep Song.”
Lonely grief is hounding me
Like the lonely shadow hounding me
It’s always there just out of sight
Like a fragling dream on a lightening night
As the song continues, you feel a sad tingle take over your shoulders, your face relaxes, your heart becomes heavy and goosebumps take over your limbs. And as the final notes of Holiday’s song reach your ears, you feel like you know exactly who this woman really is.
Catch Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Anacostia Playhouse until August 6. Tickets are $40. Show times, dates and tickets are available on Anacostia Playhouse’s website.
Anacostia Playhouse: 2020 Shannon Pl. SE, DC; 202-290-2328; www.anacostiaplayhouse.com