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Review: ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’ at Anacostia Playhouse

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“These are my friends,” Billie Holiday (Anya Nebel) tells her accompanist (LeVar Betts), gesturing at the audience. It is March of 1959, and Holiday will be dead in four months. She’s singing at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, in Philadelphia, a city she doesn’t care for at all; but what Holiday is really doing is both an exorcism and Last Rites for herself.

Anya Nebel as Billie Holliday. Photo by Michael DuBois.

Nebel is haunting as Holiday in Anacostia Playhouse’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, drinking her way through songs and memories that keep bubbling to the surface: how her mother came to be called Duchess. The terrible men in her life. How she came to sing the way she did. The terrible toll drugs had on all her relationships. The overt racism that barred her from white clubs. (The noxious fluidity of privilege, however, allowed white people to throng to black clubs for the better music, better dancing, and genuine passion for music. Afterwards, though, those white people could just as easily throng right back out of that environment without doing any work to better acknowledge the artists they loved.) Nebel’s voice is warm and supple, backed by a three-man group with Betts on piano, Mike Pugh on bass, and Sedale McCall on drums. If Nebel doesn’t sound perfectly like Holiday, that’s not the point. What she conveys perfectly – whether it’s through her singing, through her stories, or through her wearied but dirty laugh – is Holiday’s brave vulnerability. “Singing is how you feel!” Holiday exclaims. And she has felt everything.

Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set design is intimate perfection. Stepping from the lobby into the theater, you’re stepping from the present into a dark, swanky, and probably a little gritty (if the lights were on) past, hazed in smoke. Tables for two litter the floor (the best seats in the house if you get there early enough), each with a small candle lamp. And Billie Holiday herself will take the stage, in a gorgeous spotlight (John D. Alexander’s lighting design is intuitive and intelligent, keeping Nebel cloaked in a comforting darkness at one point, bathing her in silver light the next) at the top of the stage.

Anya Nebel as Billie Holliday. Photo by Spotlighters Theatre: Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill allows Holiday the chance to tell “her friends” – those of us in the audience – her life story: where she came from, how she discovered singing, how she discovered a catalog of ugly double standards, how she found each of the terrible men in her life, and how she lost most of it by 1959. Heroin, alcohol, and a heart quicker than her brain in love are culprits – but also an industry that saw black talent and black creativity as wells to tap but never replenish. If the men in her life used her up, a society that expected black women to never need a restroom in a jazz club, or to be taken seriously, or to be paid, needs to be offered as suspects as well.

Lady Day offers Nebel the chance to work through some of the better-known songs from Holiday’s songbook: the apologetic “Crazy He Calls Me,” the instructive “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business,” or the modern and chilling “Strange Fruit,” to name some notable moments from the show. It also offers a context for the songs that might not have been apparent for first-time viewers. (This is a second-run of this performance – which means some are getting another chance to be blown away by Nebel.)

The anniversary of Billie Holiday’s death is July 17, 2017. She asks that we all take a moment, “and listen to my records on the radio.” Seeing Nebel’s transformative performance goes one better.

Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill plays through August 6, 2017 at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.

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2 Responses to Review: ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’ at Anacostia Playhouse

  1. Tom Flatt July 17, 2017 at 4:16 pm #

    Thanks, Mike, for this insightful review. And thanks DC Metro Arts for supporting our thriving theatrical community.

  2. Carolyn Malone Thomas July 17, 2017 at 6:39 pm #

    On Opening Night of Anacostia Playhouse’s performance of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill I was immediately transported back in time to 1959. The set in bold black and white, with strategic lighting throughout the theater, drew me past the Bar. I anxiously found my seat at one of the linen covered tables for two lit by a single candle with the visual of smoke filling the room.
    Lady Day’s ensemble: piano 🎹, bass and drums flooded the room with her smooth deeply emotion musical sound
    setting the stage for her anticipated entrance.
    At that moment, Lady Day entered in her larger-than-life presence dressed in a white long Satan gown, open hand finger gloves covering her arms to her elbows with diamond studded combs in her hair to match her costume diamond studded earrings, necklace and rings.
    Her first selection immediately drew me into the struggling addicted soul of the gifted, unique voice filled with hurt, struggle, strength, desire and need for total complete acceptance of one of the greatest performers of her time, regardless of race or gender! I immediately stopped hearing Anaya Nebels voice; not an exact impersonation of Billie Holiday’s sound, but enough similar sound reflecting the essence of her soul. Throughout the entire 90 minutes of biographical history from the book, The Autobiography of Billie Holiday, and her actual songs, I went on a tumultuous journey of her life from childhood to her impending death during this performance. I received a thorough history lesson never depicted in any other movie I’d seen before this performance. Lady Day’s unadulterated unfolding of the real Billie Holiday in her height of drinking, smoking, phening shooting up Heroine and mood swings helped us transition in full acceptance of Lady Day the Legend. By show’s end, I was clapping and shouting, “I AM LADY DAY without apology!”