With a “new day” upon us, for women making history, the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s presentation of “Lady Day at the Emerson , Karole Foreman as Billie Holiday, is heartwarming, nostalgic, empowering, and bittersweet in one. Foreman’s portrayal of Holiday is a definite showstopper, accompanied by her highly gifted jazz pianist extraordinaire, Stephan Terry. When entering the theatre space, I felt as if I were actually in an intimate cabaret space in New Orleans’ Preservation Hall, jazz headquarters of the world. The set is unique in that there are tables set up right on stage for audience members to interact fully with the performer, adding a realistic point of view. There is absolutely no better way to celebrate the extraordinary talent of this legendary vocalist than by seeing this show, reliving her life, and learning the highs (literally) and lows (downfalls) of her life, both personally and professionally. Ebony Repertory Theatre lives up to its stellar reputation by presenting this phenomenon of a musical tribute, revealing an undeniably gritty chronicle of the blues singer’s rise and fall, brilliantly directed by Wren T. Brown. The show features exquisite musical numbers, such as “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone”; “God Bless The Child”; “Foolin’ Myself,” and “Don’t Explain,” all revealing her success as a cabaret lounge performer, her tumultuous personal life and her ultimate demise into heroin addiction.
Each song is a unique life story in and of itself, particularly with the hauntingly beautiful “Strange Fruit,” with lyrics inspired by poet Lewis Allen’s words about the lynching of Negroes that the world just couldn’t ignore. Lady Day (Foreman ) offers her own raspy signature spiritual rendition, leaving the audience mesmerized. “Southern trees bear strange fruit…blood on the leaves, blood on the root.” In the annals of phenomenal Black women who never gave up on their dream, i.e. Maya Angelou; Ella Fitzgerald; Shirley Chisholm; and Oprah Winfrey, to name a few, Billie Holiday was a forerunner and role model, paving the way for musical entertainers today. Her fait accompli, as depicted in this show, was performing to a sold out crowd (three times) at Carnegie Hall. Foreman emotes a sparkling, yet demure stage presence, commanding the audience, with her realistic portrayal of both Billie Holiday’s glamorous aura, a mere facade of a tortured soul. Musical director (Stephan Terry)’s accompaniment was the proverbial cherry on the cake, eliciting the mood of the day with vibrancy and sizzle.
At a talk back following the show, director Wren T. Brown addressed the audience, alongside Foreman and Terry. The show replicated midnight vaudevilles where performers would sing the blues, with heart and soul in the style of Billie Holiday. The show was built around many elements of her real life, her last show being in 1959, with no impersonation but rather a portrayal of an actress/vocalist with an extraordinary sense of vulnerability, her raw emotions palpable on stage. The director added, “What better venue for this story based on true events, than here at this space, which was once the jazz heart of Los Angeles, theatrical terra-firma, such as the Hillcrest Club for blues and jazz, and Jazz at the Metro. What a joy to have her life depicted here.” Now, Los Angeles audiences get the privilege to witness Foreman’s impeccable, dazzling performance, and a voice like velvet, in celebration and tribute to Billie Holiday’s tragic life story. Foreman stated, “I grew up listening to the greats, like Nina Simone, with lyrics, song, music, and popular culture always around me.” In describing Holiday’s character, Brown stated, “Billie Holiday was funny, strong, a fighter, and always saw the good in people despite the abuse and addiction she endured. She was multi-layered, more to her beneath the surface.” Foreman and Terry were able to soak up the material of the iconic legend, like a sponge. “There’s nothing like actors who prepare a joyful collaboration.” Terry added, “there is a structure to my piano playing, which brings the lyrics and music aglow and keeping her story very much alive.”
Through March 1, Nate Holden Performing Arts Center 4718 W. Washington Blvd. Mid city Los Angeles