A Review of Broadway’s “Lady Day”

By Clarke Wheeler

Audra McDonald is now the only actor or actress
to win all four acting categories at the Tony Awards. 

The moment Tony Award-winning actress and singer Audra McDonald walks onstage as Billie Holiday, AKA “Lady Day”, you feel as though you have been transported to a different time and place—specifically, to a small bar in South Philadelphia in 1959. For an hour and a half, you are transfixed with McDonald’s impossibly accurate vocal imitation of Holiday, the wonderful musical accompaniment, and the story of Holiday’s tumultuous and celebrated life. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”, which ran from April 13th to October 5th, earned Audra McDonald her sixth Tony Award; she now has more Tony Awards than any other actor or actress. After seeing the performance for myself, I am not surprised by this accomplishment.

Directed by Lonny Price and written by Lanie Robertson, the play is an autobiographical performance. Not only does Holiday’s character discuss details of her life with the audience in between songs, but also the performance itself is a metaphor for her life. It explores her family and background, experiences with racism, romantic relationships, and drug abuse, among other things. Near the end of the performance, Holiday’s character must walk off the stage after telling the piano player under her breath that she does not feel good. She returns with visible marks on her arm that indicate backstage use of heroine. In ways like this, the performance powerfully engages the audience and presents Billie Holiday as a tremendously talented and troubled artist worthy of remembrance and celebration.

Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Billie was raised in Baltimore and Harlem by her mother and occasionally by her mother’s relatives. Her rough childhood included periodic absences of her mother, rape, time as a prostitute, and being sent to a workhouse—all by the age of 14. She began her singing career in various Harlem nightclubs, and by 1938 had worked with artists including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Artie Shaw. Most notably, she became one of the first black women to perform with a white orchestra. In 1939, she recorded “Strange Fruit” a song about the horrors of lynching in the United States which became one of her most well known and highly acclaimed songs to date. She died tragically at the age of 44 from cirrhosis of the liver, which occurred due to a combination of drug abuse, drinking, and abusive relationships.

One of the most striking aspects of McDonald’s performance was her uncanny imitation of Billie Holiday, not only in voice but also in her mannerisms and personality. Traditionally an opera singer, McDonald demonstrated her mastery of the voice with an arguably perfect imitation both in and out of song. Several times throughout the performance I attended, an audience member’s cell phone went off during heartfelt and sometimes dark moments of the show. At one point, Audra McDonald, in full character as Billie Holiday, mid-sentence yelled “What the f— was that?!” to which the audience responded with a roar of laughter, clapping, and even a standing ovation by about a third of the audience. This improvised moment, as well as the remainder of her performance, demonstrated McDonald’s abilities as an actress, as well as her mastery of the complex and lovable character of Billie Holiday. Although the performance ended its run just last week, if you haven’t already seen Audra McDonald onstage, I definitely encourage you to do so. You won’ t regret it!

Clarke Wheeler is a junior at Barnard and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Image courtesy of the Daily Postal.

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