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Lady Day at Stages Opens Up the Heartache and Talent of Billie Holiday for All To See [UPDATED]

Billie Holliday etched her songs in pain.
Billie Holliday etched her songs in pain.
Photo by Josh Morrison
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Update 7-1-21: Lady Day has been extended through August 8 at Stages' The Gordy theater.

When iconic jazz musician Billie Holiday died in 1959 at NYC's Metropolitan Hospital, she had been, only one week before, handcuffed to her bed. Once again, she was under arrest for narcotics possession. When she admitted herself under her friends' insistence, nobody at the hospital knew who she was. Her arms were so scarred from needle tracks, the nurses assumed she was just an ordinary junkie.

She lay in the hallway for days because the hospital didn't treat addicts, certainly not black ones. She suffered from severe heart problems, cirrhosis of the liver, plus the ravages of heroin abuse. America's great lady of jazz died, aged 44, her voice in tatters and her body beyond repair. Ten years earlier, she had sold out Carnegie Hall, and her recordings were at the top of the charts. She died with an estate worth $1,000, since her classic recordings had gone out of print and royalties were a thing of the future.

She had phenomenal talent; an “ear” like none other; and her influence among musicians was legendary. It still is. Sinatra said he learned everything about singing from her.

When you hear her late '30s recordings from Columbia, the early '40s from Commodore, the '50s from Decca, and the final pressings from MGM in the late '50s, there is no comparable voice in American song. She sang for the ages. Only Ella Fitzgerald is in her league. Two black singers who changed the face of music with their phrasing, musicality, and idiosyncrasy of voice. Ella had rich and creamy smoothness; Billie had richness, but etched in pain.

No black entertainer had it easy in those days, and what they endured is beyond our knowing. When Holiday toured with Artie Shaw, one of the hottest dance bands in the late '30s, she couldn't stay in the same hotel, eat in the restaurant, or enter through the front door. Shaw is commended for having his entire band eat in the kitchen with her, giving the finger to the existing Jim Crow laws – in both North and South. We forget that Manhattan's night clubs were just as segregated as Birmingham's.

Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill (1986), the first Houston post-pandemic theater performance playing through July 18 at Stages, chronicles the last days of Billie Holiday. (Masks and social distancing are required.)

We're in a Philadelphia nightclub where Holiday, becoming more smashed on booze and later on heroin, careens through her life using a catalog of her most memorable, classic songs. Aided by her pianist (Werner L. Richmond), bassist (Ronnie Mason, Jr.), and drummer (Derrick James) – a heady jazz trio – Holiday sings her life story. As with most jukebox bio-plays, we're treated to a fleeting taste yet not enough to plumb any depths. But it's enough to make us rush to listen to her recordings.

DeQuina Moore, graduate of Houston's High School of the Performing and Visual Arts and NYU's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts (as it happens, my alma mater), has channeled Holiday into a beguiling avatar. She gets the off-beat phrasing, that whiskey-infused rasp, that throaty vibrato which are Holiday's signature style. When you hear “Strange Fruit” or “God Bless the Child,” you hear Holiday roar into life. The songs are what matter, as Holiday remembers the trauma, the hard bigotry of impossible expectations, the thousand little cuts that derailed her career, the love that eluded her. But her voice transcended everything and transformed those indignities into the quintessence of the American spirit: indomitable, unconquered, and, oh, so human.

Director Rachel Hemphill Dickson keeps Holiday's reminiscences on a steady downward spiral, but she can't lessen the book's unnecessary plodding and padding. More singing, less plot. (Seated at tables in front of the stage, the mannequins are an inspired touch.)

''Singing's always been the best part of living to me,'' Billie drunkenly confesses. Holiday's voice will never die. It's woven into our American tapestry.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill continues through July 18. August 8. Stages, 800 Rosine. For information, call 713-527-0123, or visit stagestheatre.com. $25. Also live-streamed throughout the run.

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