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BWW Review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, North Carolina Theatre


Angela Robinson gives a powerhouse performance as Billie Holiday.

BWW Review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, North Carolina Theatre

"Singing has always been the best part of living for me," Billie Holiday tells the audience in North Carolina Theatre's new production of LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL. The play with music was written by Lanie Robertson and originally premiered in 1986. Angela Robinson plays singer Billie Holiday and Nygel D. Robinson plays her pianist Jimmy Powers, under the direction of Jarvis Green.

This show, which is ninety minutes with no intermission, is structured like Billie Holiday doing a concert set, switching between singing and talking directly to the audience. It's "like you are all in my home," she tells the crowd. The setting is a bar in Philadelphia, late one night in March 1959, four months before Billie Holiday's death.

The music in the show is incredible, with Vince Moss on the drums and Christian Sharp on the bass packing up Nygel D. Robinson's piano playing. From the famous "Strange Fruit" to a bouncy "What A Little Moonlight Can Do," Angela Robinson nails every number. The audience responded enthusiastically to her, even clapping along to her rendition of Bessie Smith's "Pigs Foot."

As her show goes on, Billie Holiday drinks and smokes and becomes more incoherent. Between songs, she jumps from topic to topic from her childhood to her love for Bessie Smith's music. The play was based on stories that she told in her autobiography, including information about her mother and her unhappy first marriage. The show speaks to what it meant to be Black in the music industry in the 1950s, but it also has much to say to today.

BWW Review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, North Carolina Theatre Nygel D. Robinson is excellent on the piano and lends a quiet charm to the role of Jimmy. But it's Angela Robinson's Billie Holiday who is the star of the show. She is an amazing storyteller, keeping the audience engaged mostly on her own for the full ninety minutes. She's able to nail the comedy aspects but also tap into the emotional moments. She has a gorgeous voice and does an excellent job of invoking Billie Holiday's sound without doing an imitation of her.

Romello Huins's scenic design for the bar is great, as it perfectly invokes an intimate setting, even setting the stage forward so that the audience feels more a part of the action. Kishara McKnight's costume design is also lovely as Angela Robinson is dressed in a gorgeous white gown, very similar to the ones that Billie Holiday wore.

The Triangle is home to some incredible theatre, but LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL is one of the best shows I've ever seen here. Green's direction perfectly brings the audience into the show, which teaches them about who the woman behind Billie Holiday's famous music actually was. Angela Robinson is a revelation, making it impossible not to feel for the tragic life that the singer led and to reflect on the way in which she was treated by the country she lived in. LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL is at NC Theatre until November 14.

Be sure to read my interview with director Jarvis Green.

Photo Credit: Curtis Brown Photography

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