On the surface, Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill seems like a work that should be performed all the time. It’s got a compelling main character: The legendary (and legendarily troubled) jazz chanteuse Billie Holiday. It’s got a fascinating setting: Holiday’s last-ever concert at a run-down bar in 1959, four months before her death at age 44. And it has incredible music: Classic Lady Day tunes like “God Bless The Child,” “Strange Fruit,” “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” and 11 more songs associated with one of the best and most unique vocalists of all time. And the play even won veteran singer/actress Audra McDonald her sixth Tony Award when it premiered on Broadway in 2014.
So why does it seem like, in a world full of theaters looking for something great to perform, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill doesn’t get chosen very often?
Kyle Barnette, who’s directing a new production of the play for Charleston’s Footlight Players, has some theories on that, actually.
“It’s a tough show to pull off,” he says. “It’s like watching a concert and watching someone tell their life story at the same time. You’re essentially watching, in real time, Billie Holiday perform her final concert at a dive-y bar called Emerson’s, and between the songs she kind of details her life. You watch her fall apart onstage. It’s all addressed in a very raw and emotional manner. It’s hard to do.”
Barnette and Footlight’s executive director Brian Porter saw McDonald’s award-winning performance on Broadway and had long felt that the play would be a good fit for Charleston, but they also knew they’d need the right person to fill the role of a fading, but still potent, Billie Holiday delivering powerful versions of her songs and then emotional monologues in between.
“You’ve got to find somebody who can sing like Billie Holiday, which is already difficult,” Barnette says. “And then you have to find someone who, on top of that, can take on this emotional roller coaster of monologues by herself; there’s no one else onstage with her. So you’ve got to have an amazing actress who also has the vocal ability and the acting ability to bring Billie Holiday to life.”
Luckily, Barnette says they’ve found just that person in local actress Nakeisha Daniel.
“It was a matter of finding that ‘wow’ factor,” Barnette says of the casting process, “and Nakeisha has a very unique style as a performer. There’s no one to play off of and there are no actors onstage to interact with, so a lot of it is finding the balance of playing that kind of person who’s unhinged, but the audience still has to understand them.”
“Unhinged” is a disturbing, but accurate way to refer to this version of Holiday, and Barnette says that the audience won’t quite realize just how tormented Holiday is as the show begins.
“You watch her start off like the normal Billie Holiday,” he says, “But you find out as the show progresses that she doesn’t hold back. She tells you what she’s going through and ties that into her famous songs. For example, she talks about moonlight a lot onstage, and it’s actually a euphemism in her mind for heroin. She talks about how much she loves the moonlight and how much she needs it, and it becomes apparent that she’s really got a problem. The audience will see her come apart onstage. At one point she leaves the stage in a panic; she actually goes to the back.”
Since there wasn’t a large cast to worry about, Barnette and Daniel could concentrate on both the singing and the in-between-songs dialogue in great detail.
“Nakeisha did a lot of homework during the rehearsal process,” he says. “The first thing we did was rehearse the music to get the style of her voice right, then we went through the monologue in between songs,” he says. “But even calling it a monologue doesn’t do it justice. That structure creates these arcs that break the show down into what we call ‘bridge scenes,’ so you work inside of those smaller segments of the show and put them all back together like puzzle pieces.”
And there won’t be a whole lot of distance between the audience and Daniel while she inhabits this role, either. Barnette worked with the set designer to bring the crowd up close and personal during the performance.
“It takes place in a dive-y club,” he says, “so we worked really hard with the designer of the show to create this intimate, small bar from 1959. One thing we’ve done is put a couple of cocktail tables on the stage with her, so some audience members will be able to sit up on the stage with her to recreate that intimate club kind of feel.”