By Cori Lang
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a biographical account, musical celebration, and emotional retelling of famed jazz singer Billie Holiday’s life, is a must-see at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre this season.
Stepping into Metropolis’s Brick in the Spotlight Theater, the audience is immediately transported into the intimate Emerson’s Bar and Grill. As jazz hits play over the speakers, one can almost imagine they’ve come off the street into a hazy, late-night club, just in time for the last singer’s set. Sydney Lynne‘s scenery, though simple — a bar, a piano, a stool, a microphone — is loaded with detail. Aided by Stacey Coleman on props, the setting is accented with black and white photographs and lots of liquor bottles; the space feels lived in. All this before the house lights have even gone down, but it makes the characters’ stated fondness for Emerson’s understandable.
As the lights dim, the audience is introduced to Billie Holiday, famous jazz singer (infamous, perhaps, given her recent banishment from the nightclub circuit for felony drug charges), and Jimmy Powers, her confidante and pianist. The duo, played by Mardra and Reggie Thomas respectively, reluctantly take the stage, preparing to give a late-night show to the good people of Emerson’s, all the same.
The show starts to unwind at a leisurely pace, driven by Mardra Thomas’s smooth voice (both spoken and sung), as she masterfully shares all of the private details of Holiday’s life, peppered with nostalgic anecdotes, sharp jokes, and private wishes. Though the script does have its lulls, Mardra Thomas stays connected to the scene and her audience, speaking for nearly all 80 of the show’s precious minutes. Her acting chops are obvious as she goes from cool professional, to cheeky starlet, to a remarkably human woman teetering on the depths of desperation and despair.
Supporting both the character of Billie and the actress, Mardra, is Jimmy Powers, or Reggie Thomas, an absolutely stellar artist on the piano. He embodies the spirit of jazz, playing throughout the entire performance with ease, with and without Mardra accompanying him. The two actors are actually husband and wife outside the world of the show, which, of course, makes the chemistry and synergy fabulous. Impressively, the couple creates moments of dissonance and unfamiliarity just as well, which serves as a testament to their acting prowess.
Of all the technical elements supporting this cast, none is as dynamic as the lighting. Christopher Moore II‘s scheme deepens and bolsters the intimate, emotional moments created by the Thomas duo, whether it be as simple as a spotlight or as momentous as flooding the stage in color.
This production also uses projections of historical photos throughout, using the windows of the bar as its canvas. While many times the images seemed incongruent with the beautiful simplicity on stage, two of the most powerful scenes in the show come out of skillful projection integration. One such moment underscores the powerhouse song “Strange Fruit.” The stage is bathed in red, and photos appear of stark injustices and discrimination Black Americans have faced throughout history. These images, among the other instances using projections, take the show from a “jazz fantasy,” featuring Billie Holiday, and establishes a striking reality, in which the audiences must recognize that all of these events did happen to, and happened to create, the very real woman, Billie Holiday.
Altogether, this production of Lady Day is brilliantly crafted, filled to the brim with raw talent, and grounded in a history that deserves to be heard by all. The emotional, musical journey is not one that audiences will want to miss.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill runs through March 12th at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W Campbell Street, Arlington Heights. For tickets or more information, click here.