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'Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill' imagines Billie Holiday in Philly, as embodied by singer Laurin Talese

Laurin Talese with Will Brock at rehearsals for 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill'
Sylvia Zhang
Laurin Talese with Will Brock at rehearsals for 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill'

There’s something uncanny about the jazz club that’s just popped up on Broad Street.

To reach it, you step into a brightly lit lobby, through a backstage door and along a dark hallway between stage flats and lines of fly ropes. Through another door you suddenly pass the bar into a dimly lit nightclub, with candles on the tables and vintage jazz posters and photos crowding the walls around a red stage curtain.

This is the set for Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of the Lanie Robertson play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, set at a long-defunct South Philly club. For the run of the show, Emerson’s has been transplanted through time and space from 15th and Bainbridge, circa March 1959, to the stage of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Robertson’s play uses an actual Billie Holiday performance, four months prior to her death — enacted here by Philadelphia-based jazz singer Laurin Talese — as the setting for a one-woman show looking back on the iconic singer’s tragic life.

The rematerialized Emerson’s isn’t the only ghostly presence in the neighborhood. Head back outside and round the corner onto Lombard Street, and you’re immediately confronted with a blue historical marker bearing Holiday’s name. Here at 1409 Lombard is the former site of the Douglass Hotel, where Lady Day would reside while performing at the Showboat, located in the hotel’s basement.

Will Brock, Laurin Talese and Jeffrey L. Page at a rehearsal for 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.'
Sylvia Zhang
Will Brock, Laurin Talese and Jeffrey L. Page at a rehearsal for 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.'

If it all starts to feel a little otherworldly, that’s fine with director Jeffrey L. Page. “I'm a weirdo,” Page said in late March at the company’s temporary rehearsal space at the Congregation Rodeph Shalom synagogue. “I don't believe that this is a naturalistic nor a realistic work of art.”

Addressing the way that autobiography and image, fact and (often self-created) fiction are blurred in Lady Day at Emerson’s, the director found an impressionistic way into the story via ancient Egyptian religion. The Kemetic belief system proposes that admission to the afterlife depends on weighing one’s heart against the feather of Ma’at (often depicted in images of Pharaohs) to determine whether the deceased has unburdened themselves of the weight of the world. “I believe,” Page said of the play, “that this is a snapshot of that moment in time where Billie Holiday’s life flashes before her eyes.”

One key to that unique interpretation was provided by the play itself, which ends with Holiday singing “Deep Song,” yearning to “be a partner of that heaven up above.”

To occupy this dive bar purgatory, Page has cast Talese, winner of the 2018 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. In her acting debut, Talese steps into the impressive shoes of actresses like Lonette McKee, S. Epatha Merkerson and Audra McDonald, who won her record-breaking sixth Tony for the role.

At a Tuesday afternoon rehearsal this week, Talese strode onstage in a billowing red dress and an incongruous, if perfectly color-matched, Phillies cap. As she huddled around the set’s upright piano with Page and music director Will Brock (who will accompany Talese live throughout the show), the three resembled musicians working up a chart as they debated the nuances of the word “late” and traced how far into the audience Talese could wade and still remain lit.

Later, belting out a bluesy verse of “God Bless the Child,” Talese revealed hints of Holiday’s curdled phrasing and sinuous vibrato — but it was immediately clear that she wasn’t aiming at mimicry.

“My personal voice may be inspired by the path that was written by Billie Holiday — she's one of the seminal figures in jazz,” Talese noted a week earlier at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, casually dressed in a ripped Toni Morrison t-shirt and tutu. “However, my natural vocal inclinations aren’t Billie Holiday’s natural vocal inclinations. I’m a singer from Cleveland, Ohio. I sing with big open vowels and lots of slower vibrato and all the ‘isms’ that come with a person who grew up in the ‘90s. I was influenced by singers in the R&B idioms as well… So there’s no imitation [of] Billie’s voice talking or Billie’s voice singing. You might hear remnants of her, but you'll definitely hear a modern take.”

Page said that Talese’s wealth of experience as a jazz performer more than makes up for her lack of theatrical training. “We’re talking about a person who has the ability to step inside of the shoes of a Billie Holiday. Laurin understands what it means to stand at a microphone and totally enrapture the room while people are talking and getting a drink and the bartender is serving. She’s able to serve as a collaborator for me in thinking about what Billie Holiday might be feeling when she bends that note in that way. I’m astounded by what Laurin is able to conjure with her voice, the quiet and magical way she's able to capture the subtleties of Billie Holiday because she has a personal investment in the craft.”

Laurin Talese at Lady Day rehearsal
Sylvia Zhang
Lauren Talese with director Jeffrey L. Page (shadow, foreground) and music director Will Brock (at piano) during rehearsals for 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill'

Talese was not so sure that their shared career paths provided her with such a keen insight into Holiday’s soul, dwelling instead on the differences that she’s had to bridge in essaying the role. As written, it’s a complex and deeply layered part, muddying the waters between Holiday’s romantic image and the often lurid realities of her life. Robertson’s monologues dwell on her bitter recollections, drawn in large part from the singer’s memoir, Lady Sings the Blues, in which she warps the facts of her life as pliantly as she did the melody of a song — and with a similar goal of wrenching maximum emotional resonance from every line. Talese recognizes that while the play is structured around Holiday stripping away her professional façade, the relationship between what she reveals and any objective truth remains complicated.

“You see her journey through how she represents herself — what’s real and authentic to her and what she feels like she has to do for the masses. I’ve enjoyed exploring that. For myself there’s not as much of a separation, but there’s me relaxed at home in sweats and no makeup; there’s me that feels like putting on a tutu in the middle of any random day to go to the coffee shop around the corner; there’s me that's social and curious; and there’s me that many people don't see, the me that’s more reticent and reserved or just wanting to observe what's going on around me undisturbed. So as a vocalist and a performing artist myself, I can put myself in those shoes because we all wear many hats.”

She likened relating to Holiday’s very different life and struggles as something akin to interpreting a song written well before she was born, whose lyrics may be far removed from her own time and experience but contains an emotional core that is eternally relatable. “Jazz is Black American music, born of our experiences walking this earth — all the trials, tribulations, triumphs and joys that we uniquely experience. It sounds different in 2023 than it did in 1959. But there are some similarities in the stories that are being told.”

Ultimately, she adds, “the shared experience is that of a Black woman navigating this part of the world, working in a still male-dominated industry and enjoying and tolerating everything that comes along with it… I leaned on life experience, being a Black woman in this current world, imagining what it might have been like to exist in the time that Billie did. And I drew from the experiences of my grandmothers and aunts and matriarchs.”

Director Jeffrey L. Page and star Laurin Talese at rehearsals for 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill'
Sylvia Zhang
Director Jeffrey L. Page and star Laurin Talese at rehearsals for 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill'

The play’s Philadelphia roots are also important to Page and Talese, both alumni of the University of the Arts. Talese’s eyes always glow when she recalls arriving in Philadelphia for the first time and seeing the stretch of Broad Street where she’ll now make her acting debut. “I remember the wonderment and excitement I felt moving here from Cleveland when I was turning 18, how big and colorful the Avenue of the Arts was and what it represented in the city,” she says. “I remember walking from class down to Zanzibar Blue to go underground to sing three sets with my friends for like 75 bucks. It's amazing now to be working down the street with such a beautiful team.”

Page has spent significant time in the city’s historic past of late, also co-directing the recent Broadway revival of 1776. He finds his own “poetic beauty” in the setting. “Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia, raised in Baltimore, and grew her wings in Harlem,” he says. “But I think Philadelphia represents something for her. It’s interesting that she would do [one of] her final performances in a hole in the wall in Philadelphia. It's triggering for her to be back in Philly, but perhaps Philly is also where she sought refuge.”

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill runs through April 30; buy tickets here.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.