“Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill,” the musical play that opened Cape Fear Regional Theatre’s long-awaited 2020-2021 season, is far from the blockbuster musical openers of previous seasons. This is a piece of serious theater particularly well suited to its makeshift staging. Performed in a parking lot behind an abandoned building on Hay Street, complete with ambient traffic noise as background, it is easy to imagine that one is seated in the gritty South Philly neighborhood where the play is actually set.
“Lady Day” is the story of one of the great jazz legend’s last performances just a few months before her untimely death. A victim of her times (or of her own vices, let each member of the audience decide), Billie Holiday has been stripped of the cabaret card that entitled her to play the big clubs and reduced to singing in a small venue in a place she thought she’d sung herself free of.
Janeta Jackson gives a selfless performance as Holiday. Those who saw her in “Crowns” know the power of Jackson’s voice, which breaks through most notably in numbers such as “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and “Strange Fruit.” But Jackson is playing Holiday at the end of her career, when alcohol and drugs have taken their toll on her health as well as her voice. Her performance reflects this. Clad in mink and glitter at the outset, Jackson as Holiday disintegrates onstage and the songs follow her down. Brian Whitted as Jimmy Powers, Holiday’s accompanist, brings his piano in at critical moments to prevent a complete breakdown. Much as folks passing the scene of an accident, the audience is drawn along, mesmerized.
“Lady Day,” written by Lanie Robertson, is called a musical play because there is much dialog in addition to the musical numbers. Holiday’s onstage ramblings give the audience an idea of the trajectory of her life. Some of her reminisces are hilarious but much of the dialogue is raw. Holiday is presumably speaking to a Black audience so theatergoers who are not Black may squirm a bit.
Given COVID-19 restrictions and the fact that CFRT’s theater is undergoing renovations, Artistic Director Mary Kate Burke and company are to be commended for choosing an opener that is well suited to both our time and place. The cast is small. The lighting is low. The night itself becomes part of the show. Social issues that are still relevant over 60 years after Holiday’s death are served up, if not as entertainment exactly, then certainly as art. And art is always worth supporting. If you want to hear Billie Holiday at her best, buy a CD. If you want to witness a heroic performance of serious theater, book a ticket to one of the performances of “Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill.”
For information on performance schedules and ticket availability, please visit cfrt.org or call the box office at 910-323-4233.
Pictured: Janeta Jackson performs as Billie Holiday in CFRT's "Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill" through Oct. 25.