Lady Day

Yolanda London portrays Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which plays this weekend only at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts.

Photo by Laura Durant

The biographical one-woman show “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” peeks into one of the final performances of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which opens for one weekend only at Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, is a joint collaboration between Theater Works and the Black Theatre Troupe.

The production played a successful run last month in downtown Phoenix with the BTT and now will be seen in the West Valley. Theater Works artistic director Robyn Allen said she’s always wanted the two theaters to join forces since she took a position at the theater.

“It’s been a passion of mine to bring diversity to our programming with our audience, and not only that, but with our actors as well,” Allen said.

Allen said “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is the perfect musical.

“Her backstory is so fascinating, especially with the struggles she went through and her ability to still share her incredible voice,” Allen said.

Black Theatre Troupe artistic director David Hemphill agreed.

“There is more behind the songs and the bold headlines with her life,” Hemphill said. “This show also reveals the pain and sorrow which shaped who she was.”

Nicknamed Lady Day, Holiday is considered one of the most influential jazz singers in history. Many of her tunes became jazz standards, including “God Bless the Child,” “Don’t Explain,” “Fine and Mellow” and “Lady Sings the Blues.” She also is known for “Strange Fruit,” a protest song which became one of her standards and was made famous with her 1939 recording.

Holiday also has been known for living a hard life, which included drugs and alcohol.

Even though the show is a celebration of her life, Hemphill said the musical uncovers the rawness of the singer as an individual.

“She spoke harshly sometimes and had frank language,” Hemphill said.

Hemphill said the show is a great introduction for young audiences to Holiday’s music and could be nostalgic for older audiences who remember the singer.

“The most striking thing is that her songs were ahead of the time,” he said. “When ‘Strange Fruit’ was written, not much had been discussed involving racial prejudice and lynching.”

In addition, Hemphill said the play will bring back many memories.

“I’m sure it’ll bring back memories for some when she performed with Artie Shaw or Fletcher Henderson,” he said.

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