Wasted by drugs and alcohol, the legendary Billie Holiday, Lady Day of song and story, took a Harlem gig in May, 1959. She was undependable and a risky hire, but she needed work and money to support her habit, and the club owner took a chance in the long-shot hopes of a good score.
The appearance, her last before she died in a New York hospital a few months later, was a disaster, according to playwright Reenie Upchurch, and watching it is often as painful as watching a train wreck. It unfolds on the Grandel Theatre stage as "Yesterdays: An Evening With Billie Holiday," which opened last night to run through March 14. Woodie King Jr. directs, with Vanessa Rubin as Holiday and a musical trio of Levi Barcourt, proper in his pork pie hat, on piano; Bernard Davis on drums and with a fill-in number after she leaves the stage; and David Jackson on bass, trying desperately to stay out of the line of fire.
Rubin, in a creamy white dress and with white gardenias in her hair, is excellent as the tortured singer, talking about her life in between songs. "Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married," she says in a line from her autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues," and she adds, "He was 18, she was 16 and I was three." She talks of hearing Bessie Smith, of co-workers like Louis Armstrong and saxophonist Lester Young, a long-time close friend. She reportedly nicknamed him "Prez," and in return, he awarded her the title of "Lady Day." Her drug use brought her several prison sentences, and she died in poverty, with $750 in her purse, but only 70 cents in the bank.
She sings many of her songs, some of which Holiday wrote, although most include only one chorus or are otherwise slightly abbreviated in the interest of keeping the two-hour show from lasting all night. "Gimme a Pigfoot," "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child," three of her classics, are powerful, and "Them There Eyes," "Lover Man" and "Don't Explain" also were highly effective. I found the evening to be good entertainment but would have preferred more singing and less confession and stumbling around the stage, waving a drink like a flag. But those who prefer high-octane emotion will be more excited than I was.
A St. Louis Black Repertory Company Production at the Grandel Theatre through March 14