[Why You Should Love] Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill





The six-time Tony award winning actress Audra McDonald, played the jazz icon Billie Holiday in the Broadway play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. The show was turned into a TV production that was taped in New Orleans, and premiered on HBO(March 12th). Lady Day was written by Lanie Robertson, the first play being in 1986. This is centered around the four months before the singer passed in 1959. Holiday is performing in Philly—one of the places where she is still licensed to perform.


Throughout the show she expressed jokingly, and then seriously when she is in a drunken state of all of the pain she’s endured in Philly. McDonald brilliantly shows the range of emotions of Ms. Holiday, with each song. Going from fun energy, to joking with pianist Jimmy Powers on “What A Moonlight Can Do”.  You could also make your own observation of Jimmy Power’s role as well. Humorously at times on the piano, jumping into the next song to cue Holiday back in when she talks to the audience too long. At a certain point Holiday gets very irritated, and visibly upset when Powers does this because she’s in a vulnerable moment. She talks about her mother, “The Dutchess” throughout the show, and going into “God Bless the Child”.She expressed how Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith were her biggest influences. She made light jokes and reminisced of how she wanted her voice to sound like Bessie Smith’s, and goes into “Gimme A Pigfoot”.


The talking point when she describes how she didn’t want to perform “God Bless the Child”, because it was too painful to think of her mother. She expressed how she was not paid from a show because she didn’t want to perform that song. Also, the same emotions when she described her father dying of complications of the lungs from fighting in World War II, and also detailing her failed relationship, and drug usage with James Monroe. Hilariously detailing an account with a white woman who refused to let her use one of the restrooms, and how she took matters into her own hands. By urinating on the woman’s shoes. She talks about her troubles with law enforcement at every city/state she was in. Again, in Philly specifically.


Billie Holiday endured a lot of heartache, different levels of pain. On stage she expressed her desire to have kids, and wanting to start her own club. That way she didn’t have to deal with issues with her licensing. Seems like the audience was her therapy, music entirely being her therapeutic space. A place where it was hard to relive those moments through songs, a certain moment in the show the actor Jimmy Powers has to talk her up to performing when she feels like breaking down. Putting the drink back in her hand, and encouraging her to go on. It’s pretty wild trying to think back to that time and era where black people were treated like second class citizens, even black celebrities. Imagine all of that, and still having to go onstage, to put on a show. She had a very captivating outer strength, but on the inside she had a lot of pain that weighed her down, and the alcohol/drugs induced her vulnerability. She commanded the stage, none of her talking points seemed like rambling. You could be transfixed by every word, and forget all about her singing. This play showed her presence, and proved her music still captivates audiences to this day. Phenomenal acting/singing, from the actress Audra McDonald. A well deserved Tony for this performance for conveying such realness through the art.


Catch Lady Day at Emerson’s Grill & Bar through your local listings on HBO. You can watch it via HBONow.