The show opens with Katrinah Carol Lewis yelling backstage and everyone in the audience can tell immediately that they are in for a good story.
Lewis’s portrayal of the late Billie Holiday was unquestionable in its power and finesse. Keep with the real life Holiday’s music careering, TheatreLAB’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill opened with “I Wonder Where Has Our Love Gone” and transitioned into the upbeat “When a Woman Loves a Man.”
After those first two songs Lewis began the storytelling, and that is where you the crowd began to slip into the performance.
Within the show, Holiday is singing her favorite songs and talking to the audience in a cordial tone, constantly referring to us as ‘her friends.’
The intricate weaving of the songs with the personal stories that were told made it impossible for those watching to be able to break away. One of the more emotional points occurred when ‘Lady Day’ spoke of the mistreatment she received when traveling with Artie Shaw and his band.
Being an artist of color has always proven difficult, but in the 1930’s and 1940’s there were not any discrimination laws on furthering the extreme nature of how she and her fellow Black performers were treated.
But some stories brought the audience to laughs, contrasting the overall serious nature of Holiday’s life. That’s not to say tense moments weren’t prevalent as well – the issue of her drug addiction was also discussed and revealed in an incident which left the audience speechless.
Performances done so well that you feel embarrassed for the actor on stage receive a lot more than applause.
Lewis artfully draws you into her story and does not let you go. As Holiday she tells the audience that when she gets off track her accompanist Jimmy (played by Larri Branch) will start to play to nudge her in the right direction. She delves into story after story dealing with her background, and is constantly snapped back to reality.
Adversely, with every passing story, you are pulled further and further in.
The show ended leaving me wanting more and because the production is set in the moment, there is no real opportunity for a clear cut ending- but we all wanted to keep hearing what the legendary performer, executed perfectly by Lewis, had to say.