Review: Memorializing a Legend with 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill'

“Singing is living to me,” declares Desiree Montes as a deeply inebriated Billie Holiday in one of her final performances in a South Philly club. This is the proclamation we must keep in mind throughout this phenomenal yet bleak performance of Hope Repertory Theatre’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” because otherwise it could merely be an exercise in trauma voyeurism.

Indeed, Montes is a dead ringer for Billie Holiday. She looks, sounds, moves just like her, and hearing her sing many of her most recognizable songs, from “God Bless the Child” to “Strange Fruit” to “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” with accompaniment from Music Director Ayesu Lartey is a gift. And hearing her tell the woeful and tragic stories from her life while in a booze- and heroin-fueled haze we know she never pulls out of is downright painful.

Many a keen performer has attempted to capture the iconic jazz singer and composer known nearly as well for her long-suffering as for her genius as an artist, from Diana Ross to Audra McDonald to, most recently, Andra Day, on screen, each bringing her own take on the legend. However, to witness Montes in this role on the Knickerbocker Theatre stage, is an unparalleled experience, as if watching the unraveling of one of the 20th Century’s finest artists.

That unraveling, it is utterly clear from this fine 90-minute show directed by Demetria Thomas, is a direct result of the white supremacy and misogyny that fueled Holiday’s complicated relationship with her body and her mother who left her to make her way much too young as a prostitute, her father’s suffering and death, her destructive relationships with men, especially her first love who got her hooked on heroin, her legal troubles, and the unbelievably cruel racism she faced on tour, such as being forbidden to use the toilet. 

Montes captures Holiday’s fiery personality as she wends her way through the stories, at times humorous, but always tragic, interspersing them with songs, making us feel terrific compassion for Holiday and leaving us wanting more as she saunters in and out of the spotlight, from the edge of the piano to up and down stairs to her stage, lighting cigarettes, sipping gin, and at one apex moment, shooting up backstage.

But it’s often difficult to connect with her, for she’s blotto from the moment she takes the stage, and in keeping with the verisimilitude of that compromised state, she hardly makes eye contact with the audience. She’s also performing in an auditorium with a proscenium, which further separates the largely white audience from the Black performers, creating distance from the story as well as the intended experience of being up close and personal in a smoky jazz club. 

However, the technical elements work together beautifully to help shape the telling of Holiday’s highs and lows, helping to create movement and texture where it is otherwise impossible since she begins and ends in her cups. 

Anthony Paul-Cavaretta’s stunning, glittering white gowns and opera-length fingerless gloves to hide track marks help transform Montes into Holiday; Gabriela Castillo’s set effectively shrinks the stage, shaping the space and forcing movement up and down mini staircases; Erik Alberg’s inspired lighting creates moments reminiscent of recognizable photos and album covers; and Erin McDonald’s props, from rocks glasses of gin to the flowers for her hair also summon the moment, the time and place.

Ultimately, it’s a terrific collaboration that honors the lived experience and legend of one of America’s most innovative and soulful singers of the 20th Century driven by the hideous reality and effects of the systemic racism that even she couldn’t entirely rise above. It’s a stark reminder of who we are as a culture and how far we’ve yet to go to fully support and celebrate even our most exceptional artists.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill
Hope Repertory Theatre
Aug. 8-18