Felicia Loud is alternately fierce and pitiful as Billie Holiday giving one of her last concerts at a small club in South Philadelphia, not long before she dies of cirrhosis at the age of 44. She begins the set fragile but relatively sober, then buckles and fades under the weight of booze and bad memories. And Holiday had bad memories in spades: raped multiple times as a child, duped into brothel work, sent to reform school, heroin addiction, violent lovers. Loud shares biographical tidbits between songs, recalling good times, too: working with Lester "Prez" Young, her mother ("the Duchess"), being on the road, dealing with whiteys good and bad (mostly bad).
Normally, Loud is loud. For Lady Day (a role she's reprising from 2005, when it was performed at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center), Loud has constricted her big, brassy voice to create Holiday's low rasps and thin, sharp high notes. Backed by piano man Ryan Shea Smith and drummer LeNard Jones, her vocal and dramatic performances electrify the room. She lurches between comedy and tragedy.
But Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway has an infrastructural problem. Billie Holiday is singing to black Americans. But we, the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway audience, are overwhelmingly white—outsiders being offered inside jokes like "the only difference between us and white folks is that we wear our black on the outside." We are not "we."
This is wasted potential: The inherent racial tension in a show like this being performed for an audience like this should be wielded like a weapon—in small ways, like if Holiday were to comment on, say, the surprising number of honkies at "Emerson's" that night. (Having to address the same three black audience members over and over and over again broke the spell.) Or in large ways, like splitting the show into two acts, transforming the audience environment itself by making the first half "for whites" and the second "for blacks." But you have to do something. Instead, you have a bunch of white ladies in the audience smiling tightly and uncomfortably (white liberal rictus!) while Holiday rails about skinny white bitches. It's fascinating drama, in its own way. But it seems wholly untapped.