Movies, Music, Pop Culture

In HBO’s ‘Lady Day,’ Billie Holiday is brought back to life

Billie Holiday has the company of the band, a bottomless glass of Stolichnaya, and all she wants to do is sing.

When I was a teenager, I used to have Billie Holiday’s Good Morning Heartache on repeat as I worked on poems. It was delightful to hear an impeccable legacy of Lady Day — a nickname given to Holiday by jazz musician and longtime friend Lester Young — through my speakers, a voice harmonizing in company, as I worked to make my own artistic mark.

If you’re anything like me, though, until two years ago, the only artistic homage to Holiday’s life and career you knew about was Lady Sings the Blues, the 1972 biographical drama film that earned Diana Ross an Academy Award nomination. In the next decade, a production titled Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill made its debut in Atlanta, Georgia’s Alliance Theatre. The musical play was written by Lanie Robertson and included just three characters: Holiday, her fictional pianist Jimmy Powers, and her dog Pepe. In its duration, the play put on 281 performances, won the 1987 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Book, and featured acclaimed actresses Lonette McKee and S. Epatha Merkerson in the title role. There was also a brief run at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in November 2005.

Sure, McKee and Merkerson’s performances were praised, though we may never see them. But it seemed like Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was sitting in a safe in someone’s basement — until the spring of 2014 breathed new life into it.

[bctt tweet=”HBO’s ‘Lady Day’ travels through time and breathes new life into Billie Holiday’s legacy.”]

When Lonny Price began directing the play on Broadway, it took a time-traveling form. Earlier this month, HBO filmed a version of Lady Day at Cafe Brasil in New Orleans, not far from where I’m from. The story is set in South Philadelphia in April 1959. It begins in black and white, capturing Holiday’s elegant attachment to her alcoholic beverage as she arrives to the stage. In a matter of seconds, as the screen transforms into color, you hear Billie Holiday, not the woman who plays her. You see Holiday, not six-time Tony Award-winning actress and singer Audra McDonald, who won her historic sixth and record-breaking Tony as Holiday. She begins singing the Buddy Johnson tune I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone, and one would think McDonald is lip-syncing, that the entire play is ancient audio resurrected through talented mouthing and movement.

But it isn’t. McDonald’s performance is more than stunning. For Holiday fans, it is watching a limited engagement of her return to Earth in a deteriorating club and she doesn’t seem to mind. She has the company of her friends (the audience), the band, her bottomless glasses of Stolichnaya, and all she wants to do is sing.

In 90 minutes, we hear her sing classic tunes: What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer), and her co-written composition Don’t Explain. McDonald appears in Holiday’s legendary regalia. She dons a white dress that always commanded stage presence. Besides accurately dramatizing the raspiness and ruin of her voice in the ‘50s, her styled hair is precise in shine, volume, and shape.

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” / HBO

One of the show’s most sentimental moments comes when her pianist, Powers, urges her to perform her tune God Bless the Child. Minutes before, she and Powers hold a silent but emotional exchange at her refusal to sing it so early in her gig. For the uninitiated, Child was written in tribute to her mother, who had been nicknamed “The Duchess.” As viewers discover, she was once denied payment after a performance in Baltimore because the song wasn’t included in her set, but her mother had passed the same day. When it’s finally belted, it’s remarkable.

Before going into Strange Fruit, Holiday recalls being denied admission into a hotel bathroom before causing an accident on a waitress’s sequined shoes. The morphing of her mouth evokes a mystic resemblance to the only rare video recording of the anti-racism poem set to music.

Throughout the small concert, we have a thorough account of heroin and alcohol ravaging her voice and body, but never touching her passion for song. Before the final number, Holiday declares to the crowd:

[bctt tweet=”Heroin and alcohol ravaged Billie Holiday’s voice, but never touched her passion for song.”]

Do you know what I want? I want a beautiful home. And some kids. And I wanna cook. And I want something else too. I want a club. My own club. It’s very small, it’s very cozy. It’s just someplace where I can sing to all my friends. What else is there?”

Then she returns to singing, and before you know it, it is the end. The audience has disappeared, the band remains behind her, and Holiday is still singing. The scene is draped in black and white. Her voice vanishes into the music before the piano’s final key. It was the final testimony of Billie Holiday four months before her passing in July 1959, and we can argue about how much of this play is fact and fiction. But what remains true is that Audra McDonald, who is recognized as a Broadway legend at a stellar 45 years of age, captured the essence, history, and eloquence of a jazz giant in a different direction than Diana Ross.

Once again, we remember and preserve the legacy. In our own nurseries, we are planting and watering gardenias while humming Lady Day songs, close enough to the nostalgia of our grandparents’ time.