The setting is an intimate theatre in the round, with additional seating at tables placed on the oval-shaped stage, representing a small bar in Philadelphia. A piano is placed at the back of this stage area, with a drum set and double bass laid out, and a single, solo microphone out front. There is much chatter and an air of expectation in the audience, when the pianist enters and starts playing. The two other band members follow, and work their way through a few tunes. Expectations arise, and the pianist announces the imminent arrival of ‘Lady Day’ herself. A glamourous, though nervy and inebriated Billie Holiday enters, walks past the cabaret tables, stands at the microphone and sings ‘I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone’. It’s around midnight on a night in March 1959, and four months from now, Holiday will die of cirrhosis and heart failure. Except that it’s not really Billie Holiday in 1959, but the multi Tony Award winning actress Audra McDonald, in an unusual and extraordinary piece of work by Lanie Robertson, entitled Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, that conveys both the ethos of the great talent that was Holiday, and gives an insight into the performer’s troubled life.

What follows is a unique theatrical experience that cannot adequately be described without being directly experienced. It’s far more than the collection of musical numbers which are all sung exquisitely by McDonald, who embodies the character of Holiday in quite extraordinary fashion. Amongst those numbers are such jazz greats as ‘When A Woman Loves A Man’, ‘Crazy He Calls Me’ and ‘God Bless the Child’ that talk about love, life and loss with such poignancy. For both the songs themselves, and Holiday’s commentary and behaviour in between performing those numbers, reveal so much about the era and the singer herself. Holiday had a notoriously difficult life, from her poor and violent background to a succession of ill-conceived relationships and an over-reliance on drugs and booze – all in an era of racial prejudice and segregation. The reminiscences here include memories of her mother and father, of working with Artie Shaw (as one of the first black women to work with a white band), of her bandleader boyfriend and time in jail. Photos of some of those mentioned are projected onto the back wall during these recollections, which represent episodes in Holiday’s life that shaped her as a singer and woman.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill feels like a real evening in the company of Holiday – in a sense it is a dramatised concert, but in reality it has more depth and humanity than that. McDonald’s performance is a tour-de-force – her vocal style, her way of phrasing and using tempo is pure Holiday, but this is no mere imitation. The actress conveys all the nuances of Holiday’s character – McDonald inhabits Holiday, as she calls out for her former lover, boozes throughout the set, carries a pet dog on stage mid-performance and makes barbed remarks about Philadelphia. All Holiday wanted was a nice home and kids – and the sadness is that she achieved so much, but not what she really wanted. In a programme note, author Robertson says that he wrote the play because the image of the world’s greatest jazz singer being so undervalued at the end of her life haunted him. Lady Day is a picture of an era and of an extraordinary woman that leaves the audience wanting to know more about this great artiste and the injustices of the era that she suffered. The performance I attended was dedicated to the memory of the great teacher and activist Maya Angelou, who knew Holiday and whose death had been announced that morning. Angelou had apparently helped the creative team with their portrayal of her friend, and was another extraordinary lady. As for Lady Day herself, no doubt her music will live on forever, but Robertson’s play and McDonald’s honest and true performance go beyond the music to the heart of Billie herself.