The first time I heard Billie Holiday was in college, sitting on the floor of my friend’s apartment. Her voice matched the scratchy quality of the vinyl album, warped and uneven, plaintive and faded. I was deep in Ella Fitzgerald at the time, whose robust and athletic singing captured my musical imagination. Billie’s voice was strangely sad, full of more than just romantic longing, as I’d come to expect from torch singers.
I saw the key to Billie’s voice at the Portland Center Stage production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. This show–specifically this performance–reveals a world beyond Billie’s music career, a world that continues to stalk our society.
Billie Holiday, who recorded more than 100 songs before the age of 25, was famously drug addicted, a decline that defined her career. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” reveals the lifetime of horrors that were stacked upon Holiday from her childhood; rape, prostitution, physical and emotional abuse, and the unrelenting insult lashed upon people of color by white people. Indeed, when she took her opportunity to push beyond the injuries of her childhood and young adulthood, she was forced back again and again by white people telling her she was not welcome.
She and other black singers were not allowed–read that line again, “not allowed”–to sing popular songs; they had to sing unknown music. In pre-Spotify/Pandora/Tidal days, that’s a significant hit to an artist’s reach.
Her toughness and determination were a surprise to me; I had heard only of the tragic drug use, as if that kind of thing occurs in a vacuum, independent of other forces. Drugs were the equal and opposite reaction to a life of physical abuse.
Her escape into the anesthesia of drugs makes perfect sense, more sense than the people of a “polite” society continually beating her back. “Lady Day” exposes not just the difficulties of this singer, but the culture that breeds and elevates the sickness of what we white people have done to people of color.
Reviews of Audra McDonald’s Tony-winning performance originating the role describe the unsettling, voyeuristic feeling of watching such destruction onstage, calling it ghoulish.
It may be the astounding embodiment of Holiday by Deidrie Henry, or the profound communication of the experiences and cultural circumstances leading to this point, but this performance transcends the tragedy of a single person. In this show, with this actress, a compelling through-line is drawn, correlation if not necessarily causation, tracking abandonment and abuse and the assault of racism through to abusive relationships and escape into drugs. When the only joy or contentment a person feels is in singing, and the path to that stage marches directly and irrevocably through dehumanization, how does an artist continue to perform? To create?
This production answers that question this way: any artist forced on an unrelenting walk through this kind and volume of feculence will–quite appropriately–respond with fury. In a culture that requires sweetness and compliance from people of color, particularly from women of color, that rage is not allowed, so it turns into contempt contained delicately beneath a wry smile.
This is unmistakably a tragedy, but in “Lady Day,” Billie is a lens through which we can, if we take the time, see ourselves and our history more clearly. Like Billie’s sad life, it’s not pretty. What our culture, wrought by centuries of structural racism and patriarchy, has done to people of color has horrifying results.
When Billie told the story about being told she could not use the bathroom at one venue in the Deep South–a venue where she was not allowed to be a patron, a venue where she had to enter through the back door–her defiance made many in the audience laugh. It feels good to know that “those people” (the bad whites) were told off by one of our musical icons. But what showed on Billie’s face–on the face of this magnificent actor who revealed so much in her voice and in her eyes–is that barely contained rage at having to deal with this shit in the first place.
That she had to pee on the floor to get her point across isn’t funny to her. It’s degrading. Demoralizing.
Billie fought to be seen as more than what she was treated as. She clawed and scraped and got lost in the tarpit of loving the wrong man. She took pleasure the only place she could find it, and was ultimately unable to pull herself out of the trap that had been laid for her by the circumstances she did not create.
Yes, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is beautiful art; a stunning performer backed by a jazz trio that takes flight effortlessly off the stage into the throes of improv. Because the components are so perfectly crafted, this play becomes, in these talented hands, a searing voice raised in revolt, a necessary reminder of the effects of man’s inhumanity to man.
Billie Holiday, for whom “Singing is how you feel,” told of her anguished life in every raw, drenched note she sang. We would be well advised to listen carefully to what she had to say.