(Rebecca Morris as Billie)
All of us can recognize a good voice when we hear it, even when it comes out of an unexpected package such as Susan Boyle. But when a singer has a flawed voice with enormous emotional power, it’s more of a mixed bag.
Billie Holiday had a reedy voice with limited range, but her best songs register incredibly high on the emotional Richter scale. “Lady Day,” as she was dubbed by lifelong friend and legendary saxophonist Lester Young, had a singing style that was the equivalent of a person carefully picking through the wreckage of a hurricane to find small, undamaged treasures. Breathy and partially broken, Holiday’s vocals unerringly found the heart of some of the American songbook’s greatest tunes.
In Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, now at Karamu, playwright Lanie Robertson gives us a glimpse of Holiday in performance, four months before her death. While the lead actor delivers a less-than-perfect vocal impression, there is so much truth in her performance that evening still works remarkably well.
Accompanied only by Jimmy Powers (Ed Ridley) on piano and an unnamed bass player (Glenn Holmes), Billie sings her songs and drifts off into stories about her past. Swigging a cocktail, she is still battling the storms that have beset her life. From being raped as a child to battling heroin addiction, brutish lovers and a stint in prison for drug possession, life was no Holiday for the girl born Eleanora Fagan.
To the playwright’s credit, he doesn’t make Billie a saint. She pouts and mumbles, complains about racism (with monumental justification, by the way), and goes on mini-rants that are only interrupted when Jimmy plays a few chords to bring her back into present time.
One emotional high (or low) point is hit when Billie sings “Strange Fruit,” the haunting song about the lynching of black men. Another, more comical peak is reached when Billie describes a band tour in the south where a restaurant only permitted her to eat in the kitchen with the help, but the snarky white female maitre d’ wouldn’t allow her bathroom privileges. Her fluid response to that bitch makes Billie #1 in my book.
Bearing a strong physical resemblance to Ms. Holliday, Rebecca Morris, doesn’t fully capture the Lady’s delicately gone-to-seed vocal quality. Fut she plumbs many of the emotional depths that make Billie Holiday relevant today and far into the future. (Try this for a sublime taste of the real thing, taped two years before Billie’s death.)
Morris’ storytelling also becomes a bit patterned and predictable in terms of pacing, which some minor shaping could fix. But she and director Caroline Jackson Smith wisely never rush things. This is Billie’s moment, and she’s earned the right to take as damn much time as she wants to tell her story.
Ridley and Holmes provide solid instrumentals on John Konopka’s cabaret-style set. But the spotlight is on Morris, and she delivers great renditions of “God Bless the Child” and “Crazy He Calls Me,” on the way to providing a peek into the life of one of the jazz world’s beacons.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Through May 24 at Karamu House,
2355 E. 89th Street, 216-795-7077