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Channeling Billie Holiday: ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’ at ZACH Theatre in Austin

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Have you ever visited Philadelphia? Maybe. Have you ever had the privilege of sitting in a packed house and listening to the music legend Billie Holiday? Unlikely. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” written by Lanie Robertson, allowed Austin viewers to pretend, just for a moment, that they were doing both.

The ZACH Theatre was turned into a replica of a late 50s jazz night club. Patrons were invited to order a drink from a bar on stage, and tables and chairs were set up for audience members as well. The preshow was led by Margaret Wright, an Austin legend, whose beautiful voice and piano playing warmed the audience up for the main event.

billie-holiday-1281326_1920Photo: Pixabay

As the show began, Billie Holiday, or “Lady Day,” decked out in an evening dress, jewels galore, and a long fur coat, made a dramatic entry through the crowd. She immediately wowed with her strong and resonate voice. Played by Chanel, the performance did not disappoint. Chanel mastered the range and pitch of Holiday’s classic voice. The songs were a gift and it was easy to imagine we were watching the original legend.

Between each set Billie (Chanel) told Billie’s story. At first short stories or quick quips, the stories progressively became longer and more raw as the show moved from song to song. Known for her chronic substance use, the play captured the gradual unraveling of Holiday as the alcohol took over. Billie sipped from a glass of pure alcohol throughout the show. At several points between songs, Billie became tearful, refused songs, or at once, left the stage coming back after intermission at the urging of Jimmy, her piano player (played by Kris KeyZ). Her poignant personal stories told of a life fraught with abuse, aggression, incarceration, ongoing loss, and deep pain. Braving the public eye as an African American woman added to the challenge as she was often the target of discrimination and exclusion. While the Austin audience was watching a written depiction of Billie’s performance, it was easy to imagine it was happening before our eyes.


ladyday-gallery-1Photo: ZACH Theatre

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” depicts the complicated reality of how a vibrant and wonderfully talented person can also house a deeply tortured mind. Her substance abuse can be tied to both a need to salve heartache and pain, as well as to a proclivity for tumultuous romantic relationships. As it often happens, her songs were often a reflection of each layer of her loss and pain.

While perhaps slow at moments, the progression from sober and lively Billie, to ranting and slurring and off target Billie seemed to show the progression of her life and career with accuracy. Once a rising star, she died of complications due to substance abuse, nearly nothing to her name. Despite the end, it was a pleasure to sit in that room and take in a retelling and depiction of one of music’s greats.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar” can be seen at the ZACH Theatre until April 30th.