Nedra Dixon’s Billie Holiday begins Spinning Tree Theatre’s production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” by telling us how happy she is to appear at the small bar in south Philadelphia, the kind of place where she got her start.
She feels comfortable here, among her friends, as opposed to somewhere like Carnegie Hall, where she was so nervous she stuck a hatpin into her scalp and didn’t notice until she almost passed out from bleeding.
Here, in a bar owned by an old drinking buddy, she feels loose enough to open up about her life. In a show at the Living Room that is part tribute concert, part one-woman play, Lady Day presents renditions of her hits and addresses the audience with the familiarity of a neighborhood woman rather than a world-famous singer.
It takes place in March 1959, about four months before Holiday’s death. Dixon re-creates the jazzy quality and signature flourishes of Holiday’s voice, evoking both the weakness produced by 30 years of singing, drugs and alcohol, and the strength of spirit Holiday still clings to.
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Holiday’s monologues whip around the emotional scale, ranging from self-deprecating zings about the current state of her career, to sad and heartfelt personal stories, to sardonic accounts of the racism she has faced throughout her life.
The funniest moment comes when she recounts how she responded to a racist restaurant hostess in Birmingham, Ala. One of the saddest, the story of her father’s death, precedes the performance of “Strange Fruit,” one of Holiday’s legacy songs.
Regina Weller’s set enlists audience members to play themselves — or rather, the audience at Emerson’s. Holiday’s backing musicians — Gary Green as pianist Jimmy Powers and Julie Danielson on the upright bass — play onstage while Dixon performs at the microphone and roams among the spectators in the first row. Nicole Jaja’s lighting design opens and closes the space as the story requires.
The melting of the fourth wall, the merging of a 2016 audience with a 1959 audience, creates a concert-like feel at the beginning of the show. Dixon sings light, upbeat tunes and speaks only a little between songs. But as the show goes on, the ratio of music to monologue flips, and the show settles into more of a play-like experience.
Though she kicks it off on a cheerful note, over the course of the show it becomes clear that Lady Day is more or less defeated: disappointed and bitter about her drug convictions, exhausted by a life of struggle, wishing for the family and children she never had. She’s not the star she once was, but she still shines onstage, until she simply fades away.
The tale of the sad performer whose substance abuse issues led to an untimely death is perhaps one of the most well-trodden modern myths, and “Lady Day” certainly fits into the genre. But this production feels authentic and independent, thanks to the strength of Dixon as a performer and the liveliness of her stories.