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“Lady Day” Hits All the Right Notes

Billie Holiday’s hauntingly original voice and turbulent life are captured in the Porchlight’s production in Chicago of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” From the start, the poignant staging in a smoky joint sets an authentic tone. Billie and her manager are in a dressing room while her other band members are already on stage. She takes her time getting on stage, tossing back liquor for courage.

Actress Alexis J. Rogers channels Billie’s unusual voice in all its complexity, singing such heart-rending songs as “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” As Billie reflects on her life through stories between songs, the audience learns that she wrote “God Bless the Child” based on her mother’s refusal to give her money when Billie and her first husband were broke. Sadly, her first husband introduced Billie to heroin as proof of her love to him.

Near the end of her abbreviated life, Billie gave up her destructive first husband and other husbands but not injecting heroin into her veins. As she takes a break from singing in her dressing room, Billie rolls down the long glove on her right arm, ties a tourniquet, and injects the powerful drug. First she is knocked out and then Billie comes back to life slowly and enters the bar’s stage again. This time, Billie attaches the signature gardenia in her hair that the bar owner provided like in the old days.

In the play, Billie alternates between recounting her triumphs to remembering stories that tear at your heart. She became a prostitute at age 16 and then desperate to leave that profession, Billie started singing in a bar. When Billie recalls eating in a kitchen in the South with the Artie Shaw band, history comes alive. Mr. Shaw paid twice as much for entire band, who were all white except Billie, to eat in the kitchen with her. But even so, when Billie asked for a bathroom and is denied at one restaurant in the South, she shows her spunk. Billie lets go of the contents of her bladder all over the satin pumps of the pretentious, nasty restaurant blond hostess. The band members call it her “secret weapon.”

For those who love Billie Holiday’s voice and songs, this play is for you. The bonus is learning more about Billie and the triumphs and tribulations of her life.

Mar. 9, 2013