“I only know misery has to be part of me,” sings Cashae Monya as jazz singer Billie Holiday in “Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” playing through July 4 at ion theatre’s cabaret.
That line is from a song called “Deep Song” – the final piece in her last gig. She died three months later, in 1959.
Holiday had plenty of misery. Born to parents who were 15 and 16 at the time, she was shunted around from one relative to another, ran errands for prostitutes in a nearby brothel and recalls waking up one day next to the dead body of her great grandmother, a former slave. “That and being raped when I was 10 was almost the worst things that ever happened to me,” she says.
Though she flopped in a dance tryout, a spontaneous song got her hired, and by the late 1930s, she was an international jazz star. You’d think she’d specialize in the blues, but as Billie puts it, “What I do is the blues feeling with a jazz beat.”
In between the 13 songs, Lanie Robertson’s monologue with music gives us a fair amount of biographical information, like a description of her first – “not best” – husband Sonny Monroe, and that she toured with Artie Shaw (and recalls that race laws restricted her to the band bus until her set).
By the time of her appearance here (in South Philly), she’s a wreck. Alcohol, drugs and opportunistic men have taken their toll; her light voice is deep and raspy, and she will die soon in a hospital – while under arrest for illegal drug possession.
Cashae Monya, one of our most talented actors, doesn’t try to imitate Holiday’s voice. But she manages very well to convey the attitude and hurt that you can hear, even feel in what’s left of that voice. And she does justice to the songs, among them the required “God Bless The Child” and the horrifying “Strange Fruit” (describing a lynching), but also including “When A Woman Loves A Man” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”
As the night wears on, she drinks (it’s not water), even leaves for a “break” (one assumes something illegal), loses control to the point that she yells at her fine accompanist Jimmy Powers (Brandon Sherman).
Claudio Raygoza directs “Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” which plays through July 4 at ion theatre’s cabaret, an intimate and comfortable setting for this show.
Holiday’s story is a sad one, but we’re lucky some of her recordings survive her. Chalk up another victory for Monya, who continues to impress with her talent.
“Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill” plays through July 4, 2015 at ion theatre’s URBNCNTR, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest.
Showtimes are: Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 5 and 8 pm
Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or www.iontheatre.com
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.