Ebony Repertory Theatre (ERT) is that rare entity in LA, a resident theater company with its own stable home and a visionary artistic director, Wren T. Brown. The city’s only African-American professional theatre company operates at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. We’re fortunate to have such a gem at Rimpau and Washington Blvds., with award-winning productions like Raisin in the Sun, August Wilson’s Two Trains Running and Five Guys Named Moe, among many others.
The group’s latest, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, by Lanie Robertson, runs through March 1 and is a noble addition to the company’s storied history. Brown’s directorial debut for ERT is a showcase for this moving portrait of icon Billie Holiday, as channeled by Karole Foreman.
Foreman enters Philadelphia’s Emerson’s Bar & Grill in a white gown and fingerless long white gloves. She dabs at her eyes, calls out to club owner “Em,” and spars with the piano player, Jimmy Powers (Stephan Terry, who is also the show’s musical director). She speaks resentfully about her treatment by radio (“They said I should be called Lady Yesterday”), law enforcement and others who have silenced her, declaring “Singing is living for me.” She charms and unnerves by turn. You want to root for her but know you dare not.
Through rhythmic phrasing, a tilt of her head, a vocal rasp, a sly smile, Foreman begins by suggesting 1958-era Holiday without completely inhabiting her. As Lady Day progresses, her performance builds, and by the end she’s created a sense of dread about what’s next for Holiday.
Terry is the show’s anchor, bringing Holiday back from her regrets and diatribes to sing yet another classic. His musical accompaniment and professional support of this fallen artist mean well but ultimately fail to lift her up. To the audience, though, he is a sunny spot in a dark forest.
Of the 14 songs the pair perform, the most moving are also the most familiar: “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” Several others serve the storyline well, especially “Gimme a Pig Foot,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness” and two Holiday herself co-wrote: “Somebody’s on My Mind” and “Don’t Explain,” a masochistic and heartbreaking piece.
Through the interplay with her piano player and the audience, the revealing and sometimes harrowing stories she tells, Foreman paints a portrait of an artist fighting her demons. Her voice offers hope but her words and actions deny that it will end well. We’re left pining for what might have been.
This limited engagement of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill plays through March 1 at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center (4718 West Washington Boulevard) in Los Angeles. Tickets, $30-50, are available here. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, but you might want to try seats ($50) at one of the tables for two both onstage and directly in front of orchestra seats.