Photos courtesy of The Phoenix Theatre Company
Once called the “essence of cool” by famed musician Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday is considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of all time.
Now Valley audiences can see a remarkable recreation of one of Holiday’s last performances before her untimely death.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is onstage now through Nov. 26 at The Phoenix Theatre Company in Central Phoenix. The production kicks off the 104th season of shows at Arizona’s oldest producing theatre.
In the Tony-award nominated musical, audiences get an up close and intimate look at the iconic vocalist. The show takes place in 1959 in a seedy Philadelphia bar just four months before Holliday’s tragic death. “Lady Day” includes soulful and heart-wrenching songs from her extraordinary music catalog and touches on her battles with alcoholism and drug abuse in her later years.
Holiday’s canon includes recognizable songs like “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”
The one-woman show features a live band on stage and Yolanda London as Holiday. This is not the first time London has portrayed Holiday at The Phoenix Theatre Company. She was part of the heralded 2016 production of “Lady Day” and has since played Holiday in productions across the country including shows in Alabama and Pennsylvania. This will be her fifth time in the role.
“I would definitely say I feel connected to Billie Holiday in many ways,” says London. “I find her music incredibly moving and emotional. I also feel for her. Her story is one of deep sadness and remarkable perseverance. When she sings, I feel her music in my soul. It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true. I find her music incredibly moving and emotional.”
This production is especially poignant for London who will be performing the story at the same age Holiday was when she died. “I think, now more than ever, I’m ready to tell her story,” she says.
In her main stage directorial debut at The Phoenix Theatre Company, Chanel Bragg feels a tremendous responsibility to share the highs and lows of the prolific vocalist’s life.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to tell this story and to pay a great deal of respect and reverence to the legend with introspection through the Black female lens,” says Bragg. “I have always held a deeply personal connection to Billie Holiday and the universality of her story of both joy and immense pain. I hope this production will leave audiences as enamored with her as I have been since I was a young child.”
Bragg started her professional career at The Phoenix Theatre Company in 2010 when she made her stage debut in “Hairspray.” She has since performed in countless shows at the theatre and co-founded two initiatives: The Soul of Broadway performance troupe in 2009 and The United Colours of Arizona Theatre in 2016 with an emphasis to inspire diversity, equity, and true inclusion in the local arts community.
“There are a lot of strong emotions in this show – love, pain, and the ability of people to lean on each other when times are tough,” Bragg adds. “Billie was not afraid to take risks. She was a truth teller, a disrupter, and an unmatched artist. I am proud to be able to bring her story to Valley audiences again.”
“Lady Day at the Emerson Grill” takes place in the intimate Judith Hardes Theatre on The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Downtown campus. The cabaret-style theatre layout enhances the connection between audience members and performers like London.
For more information about this or upcoming shows, visit phoenixtheatre.com.