Lady on the edge

Feb 8, 2006 at 12:00 am

Billie Holiday, one of America's greatest jazz singers, lived a life of hardship. She was forced to contend with racism her whole life, and died at age 44 after years of drug abuse. Her bittersweet story is told in Lanie Robertson's short, sweet and sorrowful play Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.

Unfortunately, Plowshares Theatre's current production of Lady Day, now showing at the Boll Family YMCA's black box theater in downtown Detroit, does not have the essential component to set it soaring: a lively performance that grabs the viewer not only during its musical interludes, but in between them too.

Lady Day is loosely a biography of Holiday, and it's nearly a one-woman show. It takes place in 1959 — the last year of her life — when the legendary performer sings at a somewhat seedy bar in Philly. Accompanied by musicians on bass, drums and piano, actress Sheila Alyce carries the show, except for a few brief moments when the pianist takes on a role as Jimmy, Holiday's quasi-manager.

This leading role is a challenging one. From the first moment Alyce takes the stage, she is singing. There is no time to warm up, get the feel of the stage or interact with other performers. First, she sings a few numbers, and then she begins her monologues between songs, describing her life in an offhand, sometimes vulgar, sometimes rueful way. The lyrics are integral parts of the play's plot and directly related to Holiday's experiences.

And what songs they are — the likes of "When a Woman Loves a Man," "God Bless the Child," "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone" and one of the most extraordinary songs of the 20th century, "Strange Fruit." Drinking freely from a bottle of booze, Holiday gets increasingly drunk and tells a funny yet sad and desperate story, from when she was touring, about having to eat in a restaurant's kitchen in Virginia because she was mixed race. She was also not allowed to use the bathroom. After she finishes reminiscing, she looks out at the audience and begins to sing "Strange Fruit," a song about lynching, with lyrics about heads of men bobbing from tree limbs like strange fruit. It is a chilling moment.

There are good moments — both tragic and very funny — in this piece. These moments are real highlights of Holiday's life. She tells of listening to the Victrola in the Baltimore whorehouse where she ran errands and scrubbed floors, hearing Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith and wanting to sound like them. She speaks lovingly and angrily of her mother, nicknamed The Duchess, who bore her at the age of 13. And she bemoans that Sonny, her lover, set her up to take the fall for illicit drug possession. "Sonny: my first love and my worst love," she says. "My best talent is pickin' the rottenest apple in the bunch."

At one point she pauses, then runs off, and Jimmy apologizes for her. After the musical trio riffs for a while, Holiday returns, with one of her elbow-length gloves sagging because she has just shot up heroin. Drugs and booze were her demons, and they chased Holiday for all her brief life. In 1959, she died of cirrhosis and heart failure, which calls to mind a line by Edna St. Vincent Millay: "I burn the candle at both ends, it will not last the night. But, oh my foes and oh my friends, it casts a lovely light."

Alyce is adept at capturing the sound and bite of Holiday's fluted soprano voice; her inflections are close to Holiday's without being imitative. The actress, under the direction of Janet Cleveland, however, does not embody the spirit of Holiday when she isn't singing. Her performance is somewhat fuzzy and so is her sound — her body mic is buried so deep in her costume that she sounds far away. She acts drunken but doesn't seem drunk; she is raucous but not spontaneous. She also seems too young and robust for a woman on the edge.

The trio of Marvin Thompson Jr. (piano), Ibrahim Jones (bass) and Earl Orr Jr. (drums) play sweet and loud, as well as soft and low, and they are wonderful accompanists and performers. An observation about one distraction: Holiday's costume, by Mary Copenhagen, seems thrown together. It's poorly pressed and is ill-fitting.

For those who don't really know Holiday's life and career well, this is a worthy introduction, with 90 minutes of music and stories. Otherwise you may just want to stay at home with your Holiday records and think of the comet that flashed brightly, briefly.


Plowshare's Theatre Company's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill runs Thursday-Sunday through March 5, at the Boll YMCA Theatre, 1401 Broadway, Detroit. Call 313-872-0279 for showtimes.


Inside the box

The recently opened Boll Family YMCA has scheduled performances of theater and dance in its black box space, which is basically a square room with high walls covered in curtains, seating about 150. The stage area is surrounded on three sides by risers with upholstered, convention-center seating. It's not very comfortable and can get packed pretty tightly. But it is the fifth active theater in the neighborhood, with performance venues ranging from the elegant Detroit Opera House to the tiny 1515 Broadway space in the next block up on Broadway. Lady Day is the first performance at the Y's theater.

Michael H. Margolin writes about theater and the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]