“Singing is living to me,” says Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, and the new production at Tennessee State University certainly affirms that. It also exposes us to a remarkable college sophomore named Ashley Bishop, who gamely re-creates the jazz legend’s persona with a decidedly precocious yet poised performance, while also exhibiting an elegant singing voice in her own right.
It’s not Bishop’s fault that the production lacks dramatic variety. Playwright Robertson’s structurally limited script channels almost every bit of exposition and narrative through the Holiday character, putting a huge undue burden on the talented young actress-singer. It’s a minor miracle that she pulls it all off with courage and sensitivity. Under Lawrence James’ direction, she manages to capture the essential arc of Holiday’s artistically fulfilling but very sad life.
The setting is an upscale jazz club in Philadelphia in 1959, only months before Holiday’s untimely death at age 44. Designer Mark Collino magically transforms the entire Cox/Lewis Theatre into an elegant venue complete with candle-lit cocktail tables. Meanwhile, a small army of ushers in formal dress complements the gala atmosphere. Collino’s onstage set is fabulously sophisticated, and he uses the theater’s high-tech lighting to create colorful washes and starkly effective mood changes.
As Holiday, Bishop intersperses deeply personal confessions with 14 songs, ranging from Gershwin standards and jaunty Bessie Smith homages like “Pig’s Foot” and “Baby Doll” (the latter with a stroll into the audience) to the Holiday-penned “God Bless the Child” and “Billie’s Blues,” Fats Waller’s “ ’Taint Nobody’s Business if I Do,” plus a haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol’s legendary slow, minor-key blues about lynchings in the South. (A Holiday touchstone piece, “Lover Man,” was noticeably absent from the lineup.)
The Lady Day monologues cover a life’s journey, through rape, “sportin’ houses,” wistful memories of mother (“The Duchess”), affiliations with fellow musicians (Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Artie Shaw) and jail time (after a drug bust, which resulted in Holiday’s ban from most New York clubs). There’s also a strong racial theme, including caustic remarks about white folk and some unpleasant illustrative stories about discrimination during life on the road.
Bishop acquits herself earnestly in the Holiday role. As the performance moves forward, she edges ever closer to her character’s psychic and physical deterioration, even managing the frailer timbre in the singer’s voice that typified her later career. Yet the textual aspects of Lady Day prove tough to sustain over two acts, despite the emotional power Bishop often achieves in individual scenes. She sure can handle the tunes, though.
Bishop’s costumes go uncredited, but her gowns and accessories—including Holiday’s signature white gardenia and stylish elbow-length gloves—are lovely.
The other big star of the evening is the amazing Darryl G. Nettles, a TSU professor with a serious background in classical music and opera, but who also happens to be a kick-ass jazz pianist. Nettles—in the guise of a character named Jimmy Powers, occasionally interacting with Holiday—rolls through the vocal numbers, plus a couple of straight instrumentals, with virtuosity, regaling us with shimmering block chording, Art Tatum-like runs down the keyboard and a richly rhythmic comping style. He’s supported by three terrific players: Paul Deyo (trumpet), Rob Crawford (drums) and Brook Sutton (upright bass). Their efforts alone are worth the price of admission.
Wedding-bell bluesFast-forward from the late ’50s to the present day, as the cast of Mary McCallum’s new original play, The 70% Club, works through African American angst of a very different order. It’s all about love, relationships and marriage, with the major issues coming to a head as a couple, played by McCallum and Darius Willis, close in on their wedding day. Before any nuptials can happen, we witness nine characters embroiled in events concerning the modern state of being single, reluctant fatherhood, unplanned pregnancy and friends who cheat with their friends’ significant others.
McCallum’s script pinballs from sitcom-style comedy to frank social commentary to what often seems like spontaneous group therapy. Her writing sometimes suffers from lapses in internal logic and lack of character depth, plus she doesn’t always credibly connect the loose ends of story threads. Yet there are some truly hilarious segments balanced by others that are rawly but genuinely emotive.
The actors who fare best under John Wiggins’ rather nonspecific direction are Willis (who was splendid last fall in The Desire), Equiano Mosieri (as the gay family friend) and Jene India, who gets some good laughs as McCallum’s jadedly wise mother.
It’s a rather long evening—the first act alone ran 90 minutes—but there’s definitely some interesting discussion onstage. The 70% Club runs through April 6 at the Darkhorse Theater.
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Wonderful! We're hoping Knoxville puts something like this together, too. It's a fantastic concept!!