Deidrie Henry is delighting audiences in Portland as the title figure in “Billie Holiday at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” The play centers around Billie Holiday, also known as Lady Day, in the last few months of her life. A life criticized for her personal demons as often as it is praised for her artistry.
The play, written by Lanie Robertson, has been around for about 30 years. It has been mostly performed in off-Broadway theatres. Although, in 2014, it had a celebrated run with Audra McDonald on Broadway. PQ sat down with director Bill Fennelly, who has known Deidrie Henry for more than 20 years, as both a personal friend and collaborator.
“Deidrie even married me and my husband,” Bill Fennelly told me recently at the Armory.
In bringing a well-known peroformer from the past to life on stage or screen one must strike a delicate balance. In the 2014 Broadway production Audra McDonald made a very studied, very careful impersonation of the famed Holiday.
“When Deidrie and I began working on this play we made a very conscious choice not to do that. We thought it was really important to experience a contemporary actress inhabiting the role of this character, and what the duality of that does in the room,” Fennelly explained, ultimately calling Henry’s interpretation nuanced. “You’re never listening to an impersonation, you’re watching an actor interpret the life of this person.”
The play, especially in the hands of Fennelly and Henry seeks to do more than just be a cabaret type of viewing experience. He feels the subject matter is not only Billie Holiday’s story as a singer. To him it encompasses a much more human story of race, poverty, being an outsider, heartbreak, a distrust of men, and addiction. He direcred Henry in an earlier incarnation of the show in Louisville, Kentucy.
“In each production there was a real interest in the subject matter, in terms of who this woman was in the 20th century. Also, where we are today in terms of race in this country. I think it’s a really urgent moment to be examining who we are as a nation and what our policies have been around race, and how that has impacted our nation and individuals,” the seasoned director stated. “Holiday went through unimaginable difficulties in terms of her race, her gender, her addiction, and her position in life.”
Holiday was known to be bisexual, and while the play does not explicity unpack her sexuality, she had a very free and open philosophy regarding her sex life. “She was not private about it,” he said.
The play does however deal with the heroin usage which ultimately caused the singer of “I Cover the Waterfront,” “All of Me,” “Stormy Weather,” and “My Man,” to pass away before she was 45.
“It was really important, in terms of the substance abuse, in looking at her as a survivor, and not an addict,” Fennelly said empathetically, in the sort of melancholy way fans of the long-departed still mourn a favorite talent. “When you look at how heroin ravaged her -- physically, spiritually, emotionally -- the play allows you to draw a very clear narrative as to where this pain came from. I think heroin was employed to numb an incredibly deep psychological pain.”
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill deals with the reality of the last months of her life and takes place after Lester Young’s death, who was a major influence for Holiday. Supposedly, when he passed away, she said that she would be next. She didn’t live more than a few months afterwards.
“She had this incredible drive to make music. Her drive to make music was greater than almost anything,” Fennelly added, noting that during her final illness she was still talking about performing when well enough. “It was greater than the impact of the heroin, greater than the pain she went through. She was a real artist, driven by that artistry.”
If you are a fan of the American Songbook it seems as if Ella Fitzgerald is the perpetual favorite interpreter of American songs. Not that I deride Ms. Fitzgerald. But, one has to wonder, does the shadow of Holiday’s addiction bely her contributions to American Music?
In John Cheever’s prison novel “Falconer,” set in roughly the same period as the play, the author describes his generation as an age of addicts. Fennelly said he respectfully couldn’t speak about whether or not her demonized lifestyle affects contemprary popularity. He does however link Holiday’s addiction to a truly damaged, volatile existence. Perhaps this explains why Fitzgerald’s seemingly sunnier career and vocals occupies a different place in our collective psyche. You get “Strange Fruit” with Billie Holiday, a song about a lynching; you get “A Tisket-a-Tasket” with Ella Fitzgerald, based on a nursery rhyme. Both women were African-American, both suffered harsh childhoods, and both were songwiters in an age when that was normally a "man's job." It's something perhaps we forget 70 years later.
“We as a nation are reconking with the long and terrible chain of slavery. You look at the issues which we are still grappling with today,” he said passionately. “Today, over 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement we are starting to look at the racial and social implications of drug addiction which we haven’t really done in the past. I think our consciousness of racial pain and social pain in our collective reckoning is taking another step forward. I think the play really holds a mirror to the audience to deal with the real psychic pain which becomes a platform for drug addiction. I think a play like this really allows us to take a look at ourselves.”
On a personal level: I grew up with the American Songbook, but Billie Holiday seemed to occupy a place too melancholy for my parent’s music collection. I discovered her name walking past an historical marker in Philadelphia. Incidentally where she was born, I was raised, and Fennelly now makes his home. My older family members decried her as a drug addict, "with a Minnie Mouse voice." For me she bacame, with all her wanton, bittersweet, but beautiful music, my coming out chanteuse. Fennelly, who came out in the early 1990s, shared how stories like Holiday’s have inspired him professionally and personally.
“While I would never say my experience as a gay man in America is equal to the struggles and experience of the black community, I had a very clear, personal experience of feeling like an other, and feeling very second class in many ways. I felt very outside of many things. It became clear to me that I was very interested in very American stories, getting at the heart of what makes us tick as Americans,” Fennelly concluded. “The stories of otherness, the stories of outsiders, have always been a theme which has unified my work.”
Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grille is being performed at the Portland Center Stage at the Armory. Please visit Portland Center Stage at the Armory for tickets and available showtimes. The show runs through July 1st, with evening and matinee performances.