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Lady Day Speaks
by Heidi W. Moore


More than simply a celebrity-impersonation and a collection of memorable songs, Lady/Speak/Easy, which recently opened at New York City’s famed La Mama theater, depicts the wide scope of events and circumstances that imbued Billie Holliday’s mournful voice. Two hours tells two decades’ worth of hardship, life, and love through music and song, and shows that swing wasn’t always an expression of joy.

The theater space at La Mama is transformed into 1940s Harlem booze club, in which the audience members are the patrons, who share exchanges with the cigarette girls, drug dealers, pimps, troublemakers, and band members who inhabit this world. Occasionally an onlooker will dance with a hepcat, and the hostess will engage other audience members in conversation—all of which might tempt one to call this an "interactive" performance, if the achievement of the actors didn’t make the term didn’t seem anachronistic.

During a slap-stick vaudevillian routine at the show’s opening, we learn that Holliday is making a name for herself in Harlem.  Narration throughout the rest of the performance comes either directly from the women working at the club who surround Lady Day, or indirectly from the actions and dialogue of the men, who inform us that Holliday’s short and tragic life was dominated by her addiction to abusive men and to drugs.

Born illegitimately to a teenage prostitute in Baltimore and raised by relatives while her mother tried her luck in New York City, Holliday (whose real name was Eleanora Fagan) was raped by a neighbor at age 10. She joined her mother shortly thereafter in Harlem, where as a teenager she was arrested, along with her mother, for prostitution. It was supposedly in one of the bordellos that Holliday heard her first Louis Armstrong record, and it was as a teenager that Holliday was first introduced to drugs, and to a succession of men who beat her and stole her money.

The show features a total of 13 of Billie’s best-known numbers, but while Ms. Shearer expertly mimics Holliday’s signature sound in the first set, her soulful essence is missing. Shearer’s renditions of "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer," and "Swing, Brother, Swing" capture Billie’s vibrancy and rock the house. But it’s not until the second set that the unmistakable sorrow of such a painful life comes through in Shearer’s voice. Songs like "Solitude" and "All of Me" are aptly bittersweet and tragic, and the closing "Strange Fruit" is breathtakingly powerful. 

It is through the music that the racism, sexism, and addiction that weighed upon Holliday are conveyed, and, indeed, the musicians are not simply accompanying Ms. Shearer but are an integral part of the production. The band features members who have played with Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.   Michael Johnson, of Big Rude Jake, is both the music director and a trumpet-playing member of the cast.  According to the show’s producers, "The key to understanding authentic swing music is the understanding of where it came from."   The performance seeks to reveal why swing music is more than just dance music, and to communicate the danger and tension from which the music was born.  In this regard, Lady/Speak/Easy isn’t so much a play depicting the life and hard times of Billie Holliday as a performance piece that reveals why Lady Day sang the blues, and sang them so well.

Lady/Speak/Easy plays through February 18, 2000 at La Mama Experimental Theatre 74 E. 4th Street, #A New York, NY;
ph: 212.475.7710 Thursday – Saturday 10:00 pm, Sundays 5:00 pm. 


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