Billie Holiday’s influence on the trajectory of modern music began from the very moment she took to a Harlem Nightclub stage, having just escaped misogynistic oppression, in 1929.
Awareness of the extent of her talent, the scope of her impact, and the weight of her tragedies has been rekindled, though, following the release of Johann Hari’s bestselling book on the war on drugs, 'Chasing The Scream', and the HBO movie adaptation of one chapter of Hari’s work, 'The United States vs Billie Holiday'. State Theatre Company South Australia’s production of Lanie Robertson’s 'Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill' shines a little more moonlight on the story behind a once-in-generation voice.
Upon entering the versatile Space Theatre, audiences are teleported back to a smoky, brick-walled late night cabaret bar and grill in 1950s Philadelphia, with cabaret seating on the floor and theatre seating at the rear. Govin Ruben’s lighting design and Ailsa Paterson’s set is striking; a slick jazz three piece led by globe traversing, Broadway veteran jazz pianist Kym Purling warm up the crowd, as waiters in white tails deliver bottles of bubbly to the people in the good seats.
Then, onto the stage, comes the lady we're there to see: Green Room Award-winning Zahra Newman, as Billie, dressed in white, holding a box of gardenias in one hand and a drink in another. Newman is tasked with an unenviable series of challenges: to replicate one of jazz’s most enigmatic vocalists, but to do so without imitating. Holiday, as Director Mitchell Butel notes, did not believe in copying; feeling was what mattered. So, Newman must sing Holiday’s repertoire, while driven by emotion, yet in Holiday’s style, as it was in the final year of her life, while intoxicated and, at times while holding a tiny dog. You know from the first note that you, like the tiny dog, are in safe hands.
Image © Matt Byrne
Newman rises to meet each of these challenges, while simultaneously alternating between the comedic and the tragic. With the aid of voice coaches Geraldine Cook-Dafner and Jennifer Innes, Purling’s musical direction and Butel’s directorial oversight, Newman, and her band which also features Victor Rounds (who has toured with Prince and Paul McCartney) and Michigan-born jazz drummer Calvin Welch, recreate a single night while simultaneously unfurling a narrative which spans almost the entirety of a life. Lanie Robertson doesn’t waste a word.
Following on from 2019’s 'End Of The Rainbow', 'Lady Day' is another exceptional instalment of State Theatre Company South Australia’s exploration under Butel’s stewardship of the factors that can contribute to the premature demise of genius. It is also a timely and necessary reminder of the very human toll exacted by racial prejudice, by the silencing of voices.