Tag Archives: Jr.

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.

Sex, Drugs, Homophobia, and HIV Keep Today’s Youth in Turmoil

Review: Jermaine Nakia Lee’s A Walk in My Shoes

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By Perry Tannenbaum

After the Afro-American Cultural Center moved to Uptown Charlotte and became the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, I wondered whether I’d ever review a show at the old Attic Theatre again. In my early years on the job, I might climb the stairs at 401 Myers Street as many as three times each season to see such works as Bubbling Brown Sugar, Salomé, A Raisin in the Sun, or To Be Young, Gifted, and Black staged by Defoy Glenn and his GM Productions.

Nowadays, the old Afro-Am building functions as the Little Rock Community Development Center, taking advantage of a block-long entrance to their parking lot to change their address to 401 N. McDowell Street. As far as I know, Little Rock’s portfolio still doesn’t include theatre, so it’s fortunate for me that Jermaine Nakia Lee and the Johnson C Smith University C.H.I.P. Project decided to stage the premiere of Lee’s new A Walk in My Shoes at the Attic – especially since a workshop version of the musical had previously been presented on the JCSU campus in 2013.

Just walking up the flights of stairs to the Attic – and then, once inside the theater, walking down the steeply sloped orchestra section to the front row – brought back memories of Glenn and the stellar actors who once graced the Attic: Margaret Freeman, Wayne DeHart, Sandra Beckham Lewis, and Michael D. Lowe. The house was packed to near-capacity when I arrived, and it was instantly apparent, from the activity of the light booth to the functionality of the narrow seats, that Little Rock has kept the Attic in fine repair.

Still, fine repair and state-of-the-art are not the same. There is no roof in sight looking up, so there is no fly loft. Entrances must all come from backstage since there are no wings, and it’s obvious that the Attic wasn’t conceived with musicals in mind. The trio led by musical director Kevin Staley was lined up against the right-hand wall of the stage, visible to audience and actors alike throughout the performance. Staley’s other option, to camp upstage behind the Attic’s curtain, would have required a video setup to cue the cast, with one or more monitors facing the stage. Reality presumably collided with that possibility and quashed it.

Yet the budgetary constraints of the Lee/JCSU collaboration were still apparent from the moment the core members of the cast began to sing. To be heard above the band, all of them needed to be singing in the sweet spots of their range, so body mics wound up as the actual necessities that the budget couldn’t cover. Notwithstanding the artistic merits of Marius James’s freestanding mural, split and separated to opposite thirds of the stage, scenery was fairly rudimentary, usually rolled onstage by the crew and the players themselves. When the trouble-prone addict Maceo was hospitalized early in Act 2, they didn’t dare wheel him onstage already in the bed, sparking some unintended laughter from the crowd as he carefully climbed on.

Played by newcomer Quinn Marques, Maceo personifies the population that JCSU wanted to address when they first approached Lee and sought his help in applying for a federal grant: substance abusers who engage in risky sexual encounters. Before he climbed into that hospital bed, various scenes of A Walk in My Shoes gave ample evidence of Maceo snorting, shooting up, and drinking to excess. Maceo says that he would like to be up-close and sexual with longtime buddy Bonnie, but the effects of various drugs seemed to be tamping down his libido when it came time to take action, which enabled Bonnie to keep pushing him away. Bonnie, portrayed by newcomer Tiffanie McCall, hasn’t been straightforward with her friends, hiding the fact that she was born HIV-positive. Keeping her distance from Maceo was a responsible thing for Bonnie to do while she kept her HIV secret, but as the action unfolded, she learned another reason for maintaining restraint.

So it’s the transvestite Ms. Kara, portrayed with queenly gusto by newcomer Tara Anderson, who wound up drawing Maceo into dangerous sexual activity. She’s the member of the crew who is always flush with cash, earning it by running a escorting service online and on her handy cell phone. After taking a call from Marques (an unseen baddie, not the actor), Kara gets a warning from Travis, the supervisor at the LGBT center, that she shouldn’t be making assignations with this Marques. But divulging the fact that he was actually raped by Marques and his cronies would cost Travis his job, so he left that info out. As a result, Kara had no idea of what the full consequences would be when she cut Maceo into the action.

Completing the crew is Keon Sunkins as the local preacher’s closeted son, O’Neal. His troubled relationship with his homophobic dad and mom, Bishop Rutherford and First Lady Shirley Rutherford, was the first of four tableaus in the opening title song, but there really wasn’t any meaningful sequel until deep into Act 2. So Lee, who wrote the book as well as the music and score, missed an opportunity to fully develop what could have been his most significant character. As Lee said in his genial curtain speech, this is a “long-ass” show, so audience members may give up on ever returning to the church – or wonder why O’Neal doesn’t hang out with a secret boyfriend instead of refereeing Bonnie and Maceo’s squabbles.

Fortunately, Lee has made some important progress as both a writer and as a composer. Dialogue between Maceo, Bonnie, Kara, and O’Neal is far more natural than Lee’s previous musical, For the Love of Harlem, which introduced us to Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and other notables of the Harlem Renaissance. A former program director at the PowerHouse Project, where he counseled HIV-positive youth and other at-risk populations, Lee doesn’t always resist the impulse to giftwrap teachable moments for us or to double-underline the fact that the four besties and Travis are an ongoing support group for each other. He’s at his best when he keeps it real between the friends – and when his songs usher us into his musical world. Too often, Lee gave in to his penchant for writing soul ballads in For the Love of Harlem. There is more variety in A Walk in My Shoes – jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and gospel all get their turn – and more consistent quality. “I Will Never Leave Your Side,” closing Act 1, was the only letdown.

Stage directing isn’t Lee’s forte, and an inexperienced cast might have sustained more compelling dramatic tension in between songs with more detailed, nuanced, and polished guidance. In casting his production, Lee clearly got what he was looking for from a vocal perspective. Anderson and Marques scorched their “Trouble” duet at the LGBT. With co-composer Tyrone Jefferson, Lee has written a cluster of memorable songs for his more peripheral characters. Shuffling around with a teeming shopping cart, Kyran McShaw as the homeless Mr. Jimmy teaches the young folk a different beat with “Jazz,” scatting along the way.

After serving mostly as comic relief with her irresistible cooking, Gail Ford (an oasis of splendor when I last wrote her up at the Attic in the 1997 edition of Bubbling Brown Sugar) gets to cut loose at Maseo’s bedside with “Ms. Wynetta’s Lullaby” before blushingly receiving some rusty romantic moves from Mr. Jimmy. Among the younger players, Elijah Ali stands out as Travis, as a singer and an actor – a good thing, since he was charged with bringing Lee’s most moribund character to life.

When we finally return to the church, there’s plenty to see and hear. Following up her rousing sermon as the church’s First Lady Rutherford, Myrna J. Key-Parker struck up the most infectious song of the evening, “Wait Don’t Mean No.” I finished worrying whether Key-Parker’s bravura could be equaled, let alone topped, when the Bishop stood up to deliver his sermon, for Clifford Matthews, Jr., left no doubt. A gay senior pastor at the St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church in real life, Matthews spits fire and stomps thunder as the Bishop, quoting ominous Scripture into his son’s face after O’Neal has had the nerve to answer his father’s altar call for all those in the congregation suffering from the “affliction” of homosexuality.

Although it’s more compartmentalized than in most musicals I’ve seen, the dancing in A Walk was consistently topnotch. In addition to a trio of voguers, one of whom danced in high heels, there were two hip-hop artists to wow us. The Reliable Brothers, identical twins who were featured at the prestigious Breakin’ Convention dance festival, danced to poetry by L’Monique King. Although they are identical twins, the Reliables didn’t always dance identically, occasionally going their separate ways and occasionally partnering as they choreographed their own spots. The fascinating part was watching each the Brothers as they expressed King’s words with their bodies and gestures. There could be no doubt that Lee and King had plenty to say.