Tag Archives: Hadley Theatre

Janeta Bounces from Poppins to Billie

Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Forget the famous nickname for a second. Like only a handful of jazz artists – instrumentalists Miles Davis and John Coltrane come to mind – Billie Holiday’s vocal career had a distinctive arc, leaving the diva’s fans with a blithe and sunny early period of recordings, a forceful and dramatic middle period, and a worldly wise and poignant late period. The meteoric 25-year Lady Day career has stages as identifiable as Beethoven’s groundbreaking music or Shakespeare’s awesome procession of plays.

The legend of Billie Holiday took off almost instantly after her early death in 1959. That legend is easier to capture on film if you want to deliver the full breadth – and the full tragedy – of the story. But Lady Sings the Blues (1972) was a wasted opportunity, totally worthless as a biography, notwithstanding Diana Ross’s Oscar-nominated portrayal. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by playwright Lanie Robertson was a more serious attempt, though the 1986 drama didn’t gain real traction in the theatre world until 2014, when Audra McDonald brought it to Broadway – and subsequently to HBO.

Now it’s here at Queens University, where Hadley Theatre has been transformed into Emerson’s in an Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by Jeremy DeCarlos. Janeta Jackson not only sings Billie’s songs and wears her signature gardenia, she mingles with the paying customers and engages them as they sit in casual cabaret style at cocktail tables. Chip Decker’s scenic setup also provides for extra stadium seating behind the many cocktail tables plus a bar at the rear of the hall.

Robertson focused on the most notorious part of Billie’s life, the final days when her deteriorating health and appalling finances sent her on a trajectory toward police custody on her deathbed. When she died of cardiac arrest and liver disease at the age of 44, handcuffed to her hospital bed, there was $7,500 in cash taped to her body and 70 cents in her bank account. It’s already 1959 when we see her at Emerson’s, and costume designer Carrie Cranford has outfitted Jackson in the same sort of satin dress that you’ll find on Billie’s valedictory Columbia album, Lady in Satin, and on the Verve memorial LP set, The Unforgettable Lady Day.

Not a total surprise, since Willis Hickerson, Jr., leading his trio at the keyboard in the role of Jimmy Power, plays Billie on with “Satin Doll.” When Jackson arrives, she mostly sings songs that are actually associated with Billie – but not necessarily with her latter days. With his choice of songs and with the rambling patter of his script, Robertson contrives to have latter-day Lady Day present an informal retrospective of her life and career, musically emphasizing the early and middle years, leaving space for songs that inspired her and, of course, the songs she wrote and championed.

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Among the early songs sprinkled on the Lady Day songlist are “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Foolin’ Myself,” and “Easy Living” from Billie’s swinging early period, recorded in 1935-38 with the likes of Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, and Lester Young. Robertson does something interesting “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” not only programming it early in Billie’s set but making it emblematic of her heroin habit as she staggers backstage midway through her show. Jackson arrives onstage slurping a drink, so Billie’s substance abuse is never a secret. It’s the main reason she’s performing in this Philadelphia dive, we quickly learn, for she had lost her license to perform in New York City cabarets a few arrests earlier.

Although we never hear any of the mighty heartbreakers on Billie’s final album, like “I’m a Fool to Want You” or “You’ve Changed,” the mood definitely darkens toward the end. Although lighting designer Evan Kinsley repeatedly flouts the words of the script, which should prompt him to keep the piano player in semi-darkness, he does turn down the houselights and shine a spot on Jackson for the climactic “Strange Fruit,” a searing depiction of a Southern-style lynching that became a Lady Day hallmark.

Or as she puts it, one of the songs we came to hear. She doesn’t say it quite that politely.

There are no “I’ve seen the mountaintop” moments in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, so the ending is more pathetic than tragic. Embedding an autobiography into a cabaret performance wasn’t the easiest assignment for Robertson, but his best line, “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married: he was 18, she was 16, and I was three,” flows naturally out of the opening of Billie’s Lady Sings the Blues autobio.

He did his research, you will find, and so have DeCarlos and Jackson. DeCarlos has chosen his musicians well – bassist Peter de Klerk and drummer Tim Scott fill out the trio – and he gets an alert and spontaneous performance from Hickerson where Powers has to speak a few lines here and there, coping with Billie’s spaced-out eccentricities. And who what DeCarlos saw from Jackson at auditions, where she arrived with calling cards that included the doo-wop group in Beehive and the lead in Mary Poppins? Bet it wasn’t nearly the same Billie as we’re seeing now.

For there can be no doubting that, if she wasn’t a Lady Day fan when she showed up auditioned for DeCarlos, Jackson has certainly immersed herself in the recordings since landing the role. To a Billiephile, it’s obvious that Jackson concentrated most heavily on the Verve recordings of 1948-57, which have snippets of Billie’s spoken introductions, a nice compromise between the juicy early recordings and the raspy final releases. Jackson seems to have avoided or rejected the Emerson’s Bar recording by McDonald – a very wise choice, for Audra not only leans a bit on Billie’s raspiness, she occasionally exaggerates the mannerisms of her last years.

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Jackson echoes those mannerisms rather than imitating or caricaturing them, and she is almost as uncanny as McDonald in capturing the timbre of the speaking voice, though she eschews the telltale rasp. On other aspects of the speaking voice, Jackson might move closer to the six-time Tony Award winner, who won her sixth as Lady Day. Slowing down would help Jackson make Lady Day’s aging and physical deterioration more real, and slurring her speech a little more would couple nicely with the effects of the liquor and the junk.

The Jackson vocals are consistently wonderful in her chosen Verve groove, most Billie-like near the end of the evening in “Don’t Explain,” where she almost equals “Strange Fruit” as the highlight. If she puts a little too much mannered mustard on the bridge and at the end of “God Bless the Child,” Holiday’s most-admired original composition, it’s still outstanding – and she has none of the difficulties with the metre that plague the recorded covers by McDonald and Ross.

While the setting at Hadley isn’t as intimate as the HBO Special, it’s cozier than the Broadway production was and DeCarlos gives Jackson freedom to mingle with the clientele and roam away from the little stage – which she does with admirable poise. Ladylike, we can say. If you love Lady Day, there’s no need at all to hesitate, and if you’re looking to find out more, look no further.

nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL Bucks the Patriarchy

Review: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte staged their nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

BWW Review: nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL Bucks the Patriarchy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s been over three years since Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte actually staged their previous nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL, but it may not seem like that long to fans of the company and fans of the festival. For one thing ATC commits to presenting the winner of the festival – as selected by audiences and/or a panel of judges who attend staged readings of the plays – in a full-length production the following season. ATC was unusually generous toward the four playwrights whose plays were read in 2016, for two of their works were presented two years later at Queens University in 2018, Meridith Friedman’s The Luckiest People in January and David Valdes Greenwood’s The Mermaid Hour last May.

Although nuVOICES languished for the next two seasons, ATC remained productive, managing to stage four shows during the 2016-17 season while landlords, landowners, and city inspectors screwed over them. Queens University opened their arms to the wanderers in the spring of 2017 as they searched for a new home, and by the start of 2017-18, the 30-year-old ATC became the university’s resident theatre company. Stability! For ATC’s fans, seeing the resumption of nuVOICES has taken a backseat to the satisfaction of their survival.

Well, in one respect, nuVOICES was not only back but better than ever, for the fifth edition of the festival won a sizable grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The influx of NEA support seemed to raise the technical polish of the staged readings somewhat, for the handiwork of sound designer Kathryn Harding and lighting designer Evan Kinsley occasionally came into play.

Although seven of the 13 festival script readers were men, all four of the chosen scripts at nuVOICES 5 were by women. Yet there was plentiful ethnic diversity among the characters the playwrights presented onstage – and among the playwrights themselves.

First up was Nora Leahy’s Girl with Gun, a one-woman show starring Caroline Renfro as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. We caught up with Squeaky on Christmas Eve 1987 shortly after her escape from a prison in West Virginia. When apprehended, she had been on her way to rendezvous with Charles Manson, imprisoned (and seriously ailing) across the country in the California State Pen. Now as she speaks, occasionally to an unseen guard but usually to nobody in particular, she’s being detained at a ranger station, awaiting transport to Fort Worth.

We learned a few things about Squeaky that I hadn’t known, including her appearance as a kid on the Lawrence Welk Show, how she got her weird nickname, and that her bad behavior in prison also included bludgeoning a fellow inmate with a hammer. In the talkback after the show, conducted as a video call with a big-screen monitor, the playwright revealed that her play had been commissioned as a historical portrait and that she is thinking about adding 20 minutes to its current 55-minute length.

In their staged reading of Themba by Amy da Luz with Kamilah Bush, nuVoices broke with precedent by not having any talkback at all. Both the playwright and dramaturg were in town, making themselves available for a pre-show interchange with festival director Martin Kettling. A bad idea for numerous reasons. People who hadn’t already seen Girl with Gun at 6pm would not have gotten word that the customary playwright powwow was happening before the 9pm performance of Themba and not after. This likely deprived them of actually seeing the pre-show before Themba and definitely robbed them of their chance to have their questions answered afterwards. Or simply voicing their reactions.

Of course, the Bush-da Luz team also missed out on getting feedback from this Thursday night performance, though they would get a second opportunity at the twilight performance on Saturday. Really, the process should be uniform for everyone involved – audience, performers, and playwrights. If you’ve written a play that gets a nuVOICES reading, you should be able to commit to appearing in person at talkbacks.

Da Luz changed the title of her play after ATC announced their final four, so her team clearly viewed their time in Charlotte as part of a developmental process. Like Leahy’s study, Themba was a docudrama, oozing with personal stories and intensive research. At the unseen vortex of the story was Lola, a young African girl who is the beneficiary – and/or victim – of a missionary adoption in war-torn Uganda, which may not have been legal. That question comes up in a roundabout way after the adoptive father has died and his two sisters, evangelical Mary and theatre director Sarah, wrangle over who should get custody.

Ah, but the story doesn’t remain centered solely on the white adoptive family. To fortify her claim, Sarah brings her partner Fran, a Black playwright, into the fray. Fran sees that she’s being used, wonders how the father was approved, and begins to probe into the process, asking the Black adoption official Jelani some pointed questions. The probe widens, becomes a formal government investigation, and the four young women who have been lurking in the wings – until now detached from the main action but intermittently interrupting it to tell their stories – suddenly become factors in the main plot.

The four are certainly not a homogeneous group. Recognizing that they were likely rescued from poverty, slaughter, or disease, they are not universally comfortable with Christianity or the USA. Some of them are as antagonistic towards Jelani as Fran was – and the young women vented considerable animus toward each other. We had a lot to think about after Themba. In the nine-person cast directed by Heidi Breeden, Stephanie Gardner as Sarah, Lisa Hatt as Mary, Valerie Thames as Fran, and Angela Shannon as Jelani drew the juiciest roles. Nonye Obichere as an adoptee and Dennis Delamar as the sibs’ preacher dad delivered the tastiest cameos.

Friday night’s schedule went off without any further rule-breaking, beginning with Mingus, a two-hander by Tyler English-Beckwith. The basic structure reminded me fairly quickly of David Mamet’s Oleanna, with newcomer Amberlin McCormick portraying B Coleman, a college student who comes to the office of Harrison Jones, a distinguished professor of black studies portrayed by Ron McClelland. B hopes to get a letter of recommendation from Harrison and an assessment of an essay she’s planning to submit for a prestigious award.

Harrison’s acceptance is conditional. He’ll write the letter if, with his help, she sufficiently improves her essay. Thanks to Rory Sheriff’s crafty direction, we had to go very deep into this play trying to figure out who was exploiting whom, maybe misreading signals about who’s in love with whom and how that will ultimately affect their relationship. In Mingus, Harrison’s past is referenced in the title, for he aspired to play the bass like his jazz idol, Charlie Mingus, before joining the Black Panthers and being forced to alter his dreams. It may also serve as a marker for the spot where he allows his professional relationship to become personal. As in Oleanna, the student takes formal action against her mentor, but for most of us, I suspect the reason was a surprise. Final score: #MeToo 1, Patriarchy 0.

Last up was the most bizarre and comical of the nuVOICES 5 plays, Diana Burbano’s Ghosts of Bogota. Reunion plays are certainly not a rarity, and the friction between the two sisters, Lola and Sandy, was very much in the cosmopolitan-vs.-judgmental vein we had seen the night before from Sarah and Mary – with a generous sprinkling of Latinx spice. Only here the reunion is transcontinental, the Spanish-speaking sisters returning to their parents’ hometown in Colombia with their younger nightlife-loving, sleep-averse brother, who knows very little Spanish at all.

Ancient history bubbles up in Bogota as they prepare for the funeral of their grandfather. The old man, Lucho, was not beloved by any of the siblings, and he repeatedly abused Sandy. She needs to see the predator buried physically and spiritually, facing off with his ghost. Meanwhile Lola is upset because she feels she should have known what was going on and should have protected her younger sister. The ghost she needs to exorcise is her grandmother Teresa, the knowing enabler. Lucho may not be a nuanced pervert, mostly snarling when he appears, but Teresa, a product of her upbringing, is a different story.

Aside from the petty squabbles between drama queen Lola and prissy resentful Sandy, what tips this drama toward comedy is the living-the-dream insouciance of Bruno, who registers such hardships as Internet deprivation, and the scene-stealing exploits of a very lifelike head in a jar. Nothing can go terribly wrong with Creepy Jesus on the case. Kudos to Adyana De La Torre-Brucker as Lola, Glynnis O’Donoghue as Sandy, and newcomers Neifert Enrique as Bruno and Grant Cunningham as Jesus. Director Adrian Calabrese also made an auspicious debut.

nuVOICES 5 was presented at Queens University as a pay-what-you-can event, and by Friday Evening, Hadley Theatre was teeming with festival enthusiasts. An outdoor Midsummer Night’s Dream will run on the campus quad beginning on August 12, and ATC’s 31st season will begin with Silence! The Musical on August 15. The talent onstage at Hadley last week and the technical artistry behind the readings served as compelling inducements to check out those upcoming productions.