Now on stage through November 5th

By: Oct. 23, 2023

Syracuse Stage follows its one woman tour de force, What the Constitution Means to Me, with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, an equally challenging one-woman production that is similarly structured and almost begs to be compared and contrasted with their season opener.  Both plays are biographical. Both are essentially monologues with brief interchanges with one male character. Both plays are powerful. But while What the Constitution Means to Me is thought-provoking and intellectually challenging, forcing the audience to reason and make judgments, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is dark, brooding and emotionally wrenching. The audience is not challenged to think but to feel. Billed as a jukebox musical, Lady Day isn’t written as an excuse to perform a cavalcade of popular songs.  Set at the end of Billie Holiday’s career, after she had lost her license to sing at first-rate cabarets, it depicts a fragile and fallen diva ravaged by drugs, alcohol and the damage caused by a cruel and racist world. The songs she sings are integral to her reflections on the past and are sometimes halted and fragmented. She says, “Singing is life,” and her spirit is broken and scattered as is her struggle to perform. 

Author Lanie Robertson has created a particularly challenging artistic venture.   Billie Holiday is a legend whose fame has only continued to grow, receiving four posthumous Grammy Awards and whose life has been well documented on stage and in film.  The play begins at a moment of crisis. The actress enters carrying a lifetime of baggage. Even being in Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Philadelphia, a city she describes as worse than Hell, is full of painful memories.  The audience knows that she is not only near the end of her career but the end of her life. Emerson’s Bar and Grill becomes a kind of Purgatory where Billie is held between life and death and is compelled to look back and reflect on her choices and the uncontrollable forces of a world that consumes her. For director Jade King Carroll and her production staff, this monumental task requires an immediate impact and dystopian energy.

Scenic designer Brittany Vasta and lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger create a dark claustrophobic space reminiscent of a cheap hotel lounge replete with dingy, mirrored walls and a smoky atmosphere interrupted by the gaudy flashes of a disco ball. The thick, black curtains that shroud the stage feel confining and oppressive. Juxtaposed against this setting is the phenomenal, bugle-beaded gown crafted by costume designer Karen Perry. Its Art Deco grandeur creates a sense of both strength and beauty that is more befitting of Carnegie Hall than a down and out dive in Philly. The contrast between the setting and Billie’s appearance encapsulates both the brilliance of her meteoric rise to fame and the tragic cruelty of her current fated fall.

However, the full weight of this play falls on the performance of Tracy Conyer Lee as Billie Holiday. She is challenged with portraying an iconic talent whose hauntingly hollow tones and quirky, stylistic phrasing and improvisations are almost impossible to duplicate or even approximate. One would not describe Billie Holiday’s voice as beautiful or even pleasant but its uniqueness forces its audience to listen. It draws you in and makes you feel the emotional power of the song. Compounding this problem is the task of capturing Billie’s determination and strength as well as her fragility and decline. In order to fulfill this task the actress must bring an energy that comes from Billie’s fight to live in the power of song and not succumb to the use of drugs and alcohol to deaden physical and emotional pain. Tracy Conyer Lee is an accomplished and beautiful singer. Her voice is rich and expressive. Through her we see the sadness and anger in Billie’s decline. We understand the bitterness she feels from the abuse and racism she experiences in her life. Her performance is highly skilled; however, it lacks the energetic life required to elevate the performance from pathos to tragedy.

Syracuse Stage’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill presents an emotional tale of human suffering that moves and saddens us.  It reflects on the fragility of the human experience and it wakes us to the cruelties that threaten individual happiness.  It celebrates the healing power of art but cautions us as to arts limitations.  It is a play well worth experiencing.  Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill runs thru November 5th. Tickets can be purchased by going to or by calling (315) 443-3275 or by visiting the box office at 820 East Genesee Street.

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