Lynn, Richard, Possum, and I made our way into the Wyndham, got some drinks, then headed into the auditorium.
The show was Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. The premise is that Billie Holliday, the American jazz icon, is performing at a run-down bar in Philadelphia right before she dies, age 44, in 1959. It’s a two-hour monologue and song book, accompanied by a man who plays the piano, tries to stop her from shooting up, then procures heroin for her.
I don’t go to a lot of live theatre. It always feels to me like people are talking in a stilted way: “Look at me—I’m acting!” I was leery about going to any American show in Britain. On my first trip to England, my cohort of volunteers—who were from all over Europe and Asia—insisted on going to a west end musical involving a loud-mouthed Texan in a big hat. There was also lots of waving and shooting of guns. I squirmed through the whole thing. The group members loved it and laughed all night about “typical Americans.”
Lady Day would be performed by Audra McDonald, with actual audience members on stage as though they were customers at the bar. This was a bit strange, since McDonald and the musicians were dressed in period costumes, while the customers/audience members were dressed in contemporary clothes.
We were seated at a café table right below the stage.
I loved Billie Holliday as much as anyone; I had listened to her songs over and over, especially in my angst-ridden 30s, but would I be able to sit through two hours of angst? And my chair was wobbly!
Then McDonald began her performance, and within moments all distractions melted away and I was riveted. I knew Billie Holliday’s story—raped as a child, raised by a single mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol, did prison time, full of regret over not having children and a string of abusive relationships.
McDonald’s voice was well up to the task of Holliday’s songs; when the first strains of “Strange Fruit” began I teared up instantly.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
So the show was about Holliday’s life, but also about racism in America, and the lot of being a famous woman performer, and love, and addiction. Believe it or not she was also very funny. I wanted to run up onto the stage and hug McDonald/Holliday, tell her everything was going to be alright and that I would take her home and take care of her.
I didn’t find myself feeling defensive about the theme of racism. In fact, just the opposite. Racism is a reality in America and always has been. It’s something we’ve had to struggle with, collectively. We’ll probably never see the end of it. I’d like to think that as older generations die off, younger ones will be less racist, but the crowds in Charlottesville at the white supremacist rally last year were mainly young men.
So why would I feel proud of my country? Because at least half of us are fighting this shit. At least half of us are fighting back–marching, writing essays, lobbying our elected officials in opposition to racism and other “isms.”
The performance ended; we looked at each other and I spoke first, “I feel like a wrung out rag!”
“That was intense,” said Richard.
“I’m exhausted!” said Lynn,
Added Possum, “I never knew!”
We went back to the hotel, ordered some wine, and talked for hours about racism in our respective countries.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was made into a TV show; if you want to watch it it’s here.
Have a box of Kleenex handy.